End the tourist visa backlog to help US economy

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Marcia Hale is the former chair and president of the infrastructure advocacy group Building America’s Future. She wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.

There’s a good chance that Main Street in your hometown looks different from how it did three years ago. Perhaps your favorite restaurant has closed, or your barber never reopened after lockdowns. For communities whose economic success is tied to tourism and travel, the contrast is much grimmer. When the pandemic abruptly cut off the flow of travelers to the U.S., travel-dependent businesses such as hotels, tour services, museums and amusement parks — and the hundreds of thousands of jobs they support — were rendered inoperable.

With most COVID-19-related restrictions now lifted, one could expect these industries to get back on their feet and for tourism’s economic engine to fully restart.

But a procedural hurdle is holding up that recovery — one caused not by the pandemic but by bureaucratic red tape. Foreign travelers from key markets seeking to visit the U.S. are facing unimaginably long wait times for visas. The U.S. Travel Association has called this backlog a “de facto border closure,” with prospective visitors from top inbound markets waiting an average of more than 400 days before getting a visa interview.

It’s not a shock that tourists looking to visit the U.S. may be reluctant to book tickets for their families if their visa application status will be up in the air for the next one to three years, or that they would instead turn to other, more accessible destinations. A Morning Consult survey found that majorities or pluralities of Brazilian, Indian and Mexican adults — countries whose travelers make up a substantial portion of U.S. visitors but face visa wait times that can exceed a year — find visa hurdles more common for the U.S. than for other destinations.

Those deterred visits mean that the businesses and communities seeking to ease the pandemic’s damage to their finances by once again opening their doors to tourists are left hanging. In 2019, visa travelers spent an estimated $120 billion in the United States and accounted for more than 40 percent of international visitors. But if we don’t address the visa backlog now, we instead stand to lose out on nearly 7 million travelers and $12 billion in spending this year alone.

With travel demand at record highs, according to the International Air Transport Association, policymakers should look at how American businesses can take advantage of that opportunity instead of allowing bureaucracy to hold back our potential. Leaders are sounding the alarm — Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined dozens of mayors representing Americans from Chicago and Miami to Dallas and Seattle to send a letter calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make this a top priority for the department, describing visa processing times as a deterrent to “much-needed economic and diplomatic benefits.”

Thankfully, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced such challenges, and previous solutions provide Congress and the Biden administration with a map forward. In a 2012 executive order, President Barack Obama called for provisions that would spur tourism by ensuring that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks, and increase the State Department’s capacity to process visitors from high-volume countries by expanding hiring and more efficiently allocating staff, among other measures.

President Joe Biden and his team should look at how to build upon Obama’s executive order to replicate its success. Likewise, Congress — and in particular, members from tourist-heavy districts — should be ready to exercise their oversight role to ensure the administration is taking any and all steps to streamline the visa process and revive tourism’s benefits for American jobs and communities. Common-sense provisions like the three-week deadline have been proved not only achievable — they also work.

The problem almost feels too simple: We have millions of visitors looking to spend their money in the U.S., and millions of Americans who stand to benefit from their visits. Our policymakers should take the easy win, reduce backlogs and help put the economic damage from the pandemic firmly in the rearview mirror.