State Department Strategic Dialogue on International Travel

On October 2, the Department of State hosted the Strategic Dialogue on International Travel which is part of its Global Business Conference Series. ACI-NA and other aviation and travel associations/organizations were invited as were US airports of which six attended.

In addition to addresses by Secretaries Clinton and Napolitano, the conference included panels on visa processing, ports of entry and travel promotion. Many of the speeches and comments echoed the progress report issued September 9 on the President’s goal of increasing travel and tourism to the United States in his Executive Order issued earlier this year. (Please see my September 9 email). The conference largely focused on touting the substantial progress that has been made on promoting travel to the US, reducing visa wait times, improving visa procedures, and streamlining processing for some passengers through Global Entry and Pre√TM.

Secretaries Clinton and Napolitano

Secretary Clinton summarized the economic importance of travel and tourism noting that the average tourist from overseas spends $4,000 in the US, for every 65 international visitors, one American job is created, and in the last year, visitors from just China and Brazil supported more than 40,000 American jobs. State Department helps increase travel and tourism by making it easier to obtain a visa, by US Embassies promoting tourism to the US and by working with foreign governments and the private sector to make it easier to travel to the US. She cited the US/Brazil Air Transport Agreement which will increase the number of flights and that American Airlines will fly its first nonstop routes from Miami to Recife and Salvador starting in November.  Her remarks can be found at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/10/198561.htm.

Secretary Napolitano provided the major announcement at the conference:  addition of Taiwan to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) so that effective November 1 its passport holders can visit the US for 90 days or less for business or tourism. (Please see my October 2 email).  She also mentioned creating more flexibility regarding designating new aspirants to VWP. She also touched on preclearance, but did not mention specific countries, and cooperation with Canada and Mexico. 

Visas

Deputy Secretary of State Nides and Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Jacobs stressed that they could not rely on ever increasing staff, facilities and funds to meet the demand for visas, but would have to work more efficiently and make sustainable changes.  Edward Ramotowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services indicated that State Department and DHS are looking to coordinate more on the information they capture. He stated that that State Department would not have been able to respond to the increases in visa demand so effectively without the ability to retain the fees paid by visa applicants. Nides speech and Jacobs blog can be found at http://www.state.gov/s/dmr/remarks/2012/198590.htm and http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/strategic_dialogue_travel, respectively.

The panel of the Deputy Chiefs of Mission in Brazil, China, India and Mexico highlighted the increasing number of visa applicants, decrease in visa wait times, and facility and process improvements for their respective countries with charts and bullet points which are attached in alphabetical order.

Passenger processing

Douglas Smith, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Private Sector, John Wagner, Executive Director, Admissibility and Passenger Programs, CBP, and Doug Hofsass, Associate Administrator, TSA outlined efforts regarding refreshing the Model Ports initiative (e.g. MCO), Global Entry and mobile enrollment, videos, professionalism training, passenger service managers, and Pre√TM

Wagner said that wait times are creeping up during peak periods and that there are problems with outlier flights (i.e. outside of normal CBP operating hours at that airport). He also cited the good partnership with airports and airlines with some airports conducting their own marketing campaigns and providing space for Global Entry. Smith indicated that it is challenge to get other countries to sign agreements on international trusted traveler programs. 

Doug Lavin, Regional Vice President, North America for IATA pointed out that the US has not reconciled promotion of US travel with long airport wait times and suggested that 630 CBP positions could be supported by certain Customs user fees now being used for deficit reduction. He touched on the excess fees generated by the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

The DHS officials acknowledged the concerns. Wagner noted that there has been tremendous growth in traffic and facilities for various modes which does stress resources. CBP does not want to deny services. CBP is looking at automated self- service kiosks which should reduce the amount of time a CBP Officer interacts with most passengers, eliminating paper forms and other changes to its processes.