The Washington Times - October 7, 2011, 01:51PM

Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Democrat, is looking to give Virginia’s already-robust tourism industry an international boost.

Mr. Warner on Friday threw his support behind a bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobucher, Minnesota Democrat, and Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, that would streamline visa processing services to cut down on extensive wait times for overseas visitors to receive U.S. tourist visas.


“I’m not sure [a] single silver bullet exists, but there are a lot of small things we can do to add jobs,” Mr. Warner said, noting that a 1 percent increase in international tourism corresponds to 160,000 U.S. jobs.

“We are not saying anything in this legislation that would constrain security,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “Not every piece of legislation is a win-win, but this one should be a no-brainer.

“Tourism is big business in Virginia, but a key obstacle to increasing the number of foreign travelers is our U.S. visa system.”

Tourism is one of Virginia’s largest industries, generating more than $17 billion in revenue. According to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, tourism supports more than 200,000 Virginia jobs and contributes to an estimated $1.24 billion in state and local tax revenue for the state each year.

But Chinese tourists who want to visit the U.S. face waits of up to 120 days, and it can take 145 days in Brazil to process a U.S. travel visa.

The legislation would allow the State Department to reinvest fees charged for visas if additional personnel will help improve efficiency and allow the Secretary of State in certain circumstances to grant a waiver up up to three additional years for foreigners to renew their tourist visas without making them go through an in-person interview each year. It also will require the State Department to provide a report to Congress outlining how the agency is using Commerce travel data to further improve the visa process.

“We have not heard pushback from the state department,” Mr. Warner said. “This is something that has been a growing problem since the aftermath of 9/11…this needs to be a much higher priority.”

Despite the visa-centric focus of the conference call, Mr. Warner could not escape several political questions. He said that that there were “certain parts” of President Obama’s $447 million jobs plan that he supported, notably payroll tax holidays and spending on infrastructure.

He said that at the very least, the Senate should get it to the floor for a debate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, blocked an attempt from Minority Leader Mitch McDonnell, Kentucky Republican, to force a vote on the measure Thursday by tacking it onto legislation on China currency.

He was also asked whether it was wise for Virginia Democratic candidates to distance themselves from President Obama a year out from the 2012 election.

State Sen. Phillip Puckett, Tazewell Democrat, said recently that he does not plan to support the president’s re-election bid, and state House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, Henry Democrat, said in a recent ad that a Republican ad’s comparing him to Mr. Obama was “a stretch.”

“Virginians have always taken an independent bent in our legislative races,” Mr. Warner said. “I support the president…I’m not going to second-guess what state candidates are doing or not doing four weeks out from an election.”

Mr. Warner said that with enormous frustration with the lack of collaboration in Washington, he could imagine candidates from both parties would be running away from Washington.