No successful business operator would keep their best customers on hold for a year or more. Yet that’s what’s happening to far too many of America’s customers. Millions of tourists and business travelers are languishing for months on end waiting for an interview just to apply for a visa to visit the United States and contribute to our economy.
Egregious wait times for visitor visas to the U.S. now average a staggering 400+ days for first-time visitors from critical inbound countries. Visa processing times for three top sources of U.S. visitors–Brazil, India, and Mexico–are now 317, 757 and 601 days respectively. These excessive visa delays are the equivalent of a travel ban, pushing potential U.S. visitors to choose other countries instead.
A recent survey from Morning Consult finds that at least three in five travelers from Brazil, India, and Mexico would say “no thanks, I’ll go elsewhere” if forced to wait more than a year for a U.S. visa.
Discouraging travelers from just those three countries will cost our economy a projected $5 billion in lost spending next year, according to our analysis.
All told, visa processing delays could keep an estimated 6.6 million potential travelers from visiting the United States in 2023–a loss of $11.6 billion. And of course, this figure cannot account for the ground ceded in our national efforts to restore ties with other countries and improve public diplomacy.
Turning away that kind of economic activity makes no sense as we sit on the brink of recession and the travel industry continues digging out from the devastating impact of the pandemic. While spending on domestic leisure travel now tops 2019 levels, spending from international visitors to the U.S. in 2021 was still 78% percent below 2019 in May–and isn’t forecast to recover to previous levels until at least 2025.
It’s not just big airlines and hotel operators bearing the brunt of lost travel and tourism. Local restaurants, bed and breakfasts, Main Street retailers, and countless other businesses rely on visitor spending–to say nothing of local and state governments that depend on taxes from traveler spending.
To its credit, the Biden administration recognizes the importance of international travel to the U.S. economy. The Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy, released this summer, set a goal of welcoming 90 million international visitors to the U.S. by 2027. These visitors would generate $279 billion of economic activity each year.
Unfortunately, the State Department, which is responsible for processing visitor visas, is both failing to act with urgency to meet the administration’s goals and failing to recognize the economic consequences. The State Department says visa processing delays are caused by staffing issues and lingering pandemic challenges. Fair enough–but this hasn’t stopped travel businesses from finding ways to navigate their labor shortages while meeting surging demand.
And while the State Department has demonstrated that it has the ability to efficiently process other classifications of visas, the staggering wait times show that the agency has failed to prioritize visitor visa interviews.
The good news: solutions are available. The U.S. faced a similar problem 10 years ago and the Obama State Department fixed it. But doing so required clear direction from the White House and rigorous oversight from Congress to make sure the State Department follows through.
To quickly lower visitor visa wait times, the Biden administration must make it a clear goal and set specific timelines to achieve it: Prioritize countries that send us the most visitors by lowering interview wait times to 21 days for visitors from Brazil, India, and Mexico by April 2023. And by September 30, 2023, reinstate President Obama’s executive order committing to processing 80% of visas worldwide within 21 days.
To reach the 21-day goal, surge new consular officer staffing in Brazil, India, and Mexico and reassign staff with previous consular experience to these markets. Process visa applications seven days a week and pilot the use of secure remote video interviews to accommodate more applicants. Streamline simple applications by extending through 2024 the authority to waive interviews for nonimmigrant visa renewals. And set up a dedicated system to provide faster visa processing for large tour groups and people attending conventions and events in the U.S.
Keeping America a top destination for international travel must be a national priority, and that starts with using every lever of government to welcome our best customers. With a recession looming, the United States can ill afford to turn away billions of dollars in visitor spending.
Improving visa processing can be done safely and securely as we proved a decade ago. The Obama administration effectively addressed excessive visa wait times then–it’s time for the Biden administration to do the same now.
Geoff Freeman is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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