The Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) reacted with disappointment and concern today to an announcement by the federal government that beginning no later than September 30, 2004 all Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers entering the United States will be enrolled in the US-VISIT (US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) entry-exit system upon arrival in the U.S.
It is now clear that enrollment of VWP travelers in US-VISIT is part of an agreement between Congress and the Administration that includes extension of the October 26, 2004 biometric passport deadline for Visa Waiver countries which the travel industry strong supported.
“While we appreciate the rationale for the federal government’s action, TIA is nonetheless greatly disappointed and very concerned about potential negative reactions in key inbound tourism markets in western Europe, Japan and other important Visa Waiver countries,” said William S. Norman, president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association of America.
Since 9/11, inbound overseas travel to the U.S. has declined by 30 percent. For the first time since 2000, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Travel and Tourism Industries is forecasting an increase of 5 percent, primarily from the UK, a Visa Waiver country.
Today’s announcement means that VWP travelers will join all other overseas international visitors to the U.S. in providing digital finger scans and photographs upon arrival in the U.S. Since US VISIT was introduced on January 5, 2004 at 115 airports and 14 seaports the new procedure has operated relatively smoothly with no significant delays attributable to the program itself during this typically non-peak travel period.
TIA and many of its member organizations have been lobbying Congress for several months to extend the October 26, 2004 deadline requiring biometric passports for Visa Waiver travelers entering the U.S. Without the deadline extension, as many as five to six million Visa Waiver travelers or 15 percent of all overseas visitors could encounter great difficulty in obtaining the proper documentation to enter the U.S. later this year and in 2005.
Nearly all of the 27 Visa Waiver countries are unable to comply with the October 26 deadline, thus necessitating action on the part of the U.S. Congress to extend the deadline. Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge sent a letter to Congress in mid-March requesting an extension of the biometric passport deadline from October 26, 2004 until December 2006.
“With this major announcement, Congress needs to act quickly to extend the biometric passport deadline and reassure these critical travel markets that the U.S. still welcomes them,” said Norman. “Recovery for the U.S. travel industry and U.S. jobs are at stake here, and it is essential that Congress and the Administration handle these decisions in a way that does not make the U.S. less competitive for our most important inbound travel markets.”
TIA and other travel industry organizations have supported the US-VISIT program and enrollment for travelers entering the U.S. with a visa, and have worked with the Department of Homeland Security in publicizing how the program works and who it impacts. This change in policy, however, may be difficult to explain to Visa Waiver travelers. It is incumbent upon the federal government to work with the travel industry to fully communicate and explain why this action is necessary.
At a time when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has instituted an internal freeze on the hiring of Customs and Border Protection inspectors, it is critical that DHS assure the world they have a sufficient number of inspectors and equipment to make certain there will not be long lines, delays and missed connections for international travelers arriving in the U.S., especially during the upcoming peak season and early fall months.
“We expect 2004 to be a turnaround year where the travel industry can finally see positive growth in inbound international travel to the U.S. Therefore, we are concerned that this announcement will discourage visitors to the extent that they choose other destinations,” said Norman.