- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Travel industry groups yesterday announced a series of proposals aimed at making it easier for international travelers to visit the United States.

The Discover America Partnership (DAP), a travel industry lobbying group, proposed adding more staff to U.S. Consulates to reduce the time it takes for visitors to acquire visas, setting a goal of processing all foreign travelers through customs in 30 minutes, and implementing a national tourism marketing program.

Other DAP proposals included evaluating U.S. Customs officers on their friendliness, greeting foreign travelers by saying “Welcome to America” and offering foreign visitors customer-service evaluations to fill out when they leave the United States — proposals aimed at improving America’s image abroad.

“We can make travel easier and more secure,” Stevan Porter, DAP chairman and president of InterContinental Hotels Group, told reporters yesterday.

Overseas travel to the United States has declined 17 percent since the September 11, 2001, attacks, amid perceptions that it has become more difficult to get a visa to the United States than to other countries. Some visitors are waiting up to 100 days for a visa interview, DAP estimated.

The group said the proposed changes would cost $300 million and suggested three ways to pay for it: Charge a $5 fee to enter or exit the country; charge a $10 fee for travelers from countries that do not require visas; or issue government bonds.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of a tourism subcommittee , said during a hearing yesterday that he would like to “find some sort of way” to introduce a bill based on the proposal.

Committee Co-chairmen Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, also said they supported drafting a bill to boost international tourism.

The State Department has been working on improving the visa process, including many of the issues the DAP addressed, a consular affairs official said yesterday.

The department has added 570 consular positions worldwide and implemented an electronic visa application form, which increases the number of applicants an office can review.

As of last month, 90 percent of the U.S. consulates recorded visa appointment waiting periods of 30 days or less.

An airline industry group expressed doubts about the DAP proposals. Air Transport Association of America President and Chief Executive Officer James C. May said his group was opposed to the idea of an exit fee, which could be tacked on to the price of an airline ticket.

“While I appreciate a warm welcome, it is really hard for me to support charging passengers a $5 fee to purchase a smile and a greeting,” he said, adding that visitors to the U.S. paid $50 in airline ticket fees last year.

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