Reader's View: Expanding visa program will help economy

September 24, 2013 

Our nation’s economy is still at a crossroads, while some industry sectors are improving, some are still languishing. So let’s use the occasion to think about how the travel industry can jumpstart the American economy. It’s a vital part of our economic health, and we need to urge our elected officials to remove obstacles for Americans traveling around their own country and easier for international visitors.

Travel and tourism make up one of America’s largest industries, employing more workers than both the insurance and auto industries. In 2011, it generated $1.9 trillion in economic output, and it delivered $124 billion in tax revenues. It’s big business. In fact, without travel and tourism’s contribution to the tax base, each household would be taxed an additional $1,000 per year.

In Idaho, our Department of Commerce identifies travel as one of the top industries in our state, where almost 2,000 businesses with 31,000 jobs generate almost $600 million in wages. Indirectly, tourism helps support an estimated 12,700 nontourism-related jobs. Together, this represents more than 43,700 jobs and around $1 billion in wages. With such economic importance, travel should be easy and accessible. Here are ways to fix problems and get this strong economic industry on track:

• Create a smarter visa system. Between 2000 and 2010, the world travel market grew by 60 million travelers. But in 2010, the U.S. welcomed only a fraction more than it did a decade earlier — just 1 percent. Why? Because times have changed and new tourists are coming from nations experiencing economic growth such as Brazil, India and China. But citizens of these countries face barriers to enter the U.S., and some countries, such as Israel, Brazil and Poland, are not yet members of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. That means they must first undergo a cumbersome and costly process that does not guarantee approval. We can do better.

Overseas visitors interested in visiting the pure American West love Idaho. And when they visit us, they pump money into our economy — $4,000 per visitor on average. But with the uncertainty, expense and delay surrounding our visa process, many decide to go to Canada or elsewhere — taking their credit cards with them.

It’s time to make our visa process efficient, less uncertain, and more respectful of travelers who want to visit the U.S. Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate and House, the JOLT Act, will correct this problem and put the U.S. back on a path to welcoming hordes of additional international visitors, and the dollars they promise to spend.

• Trusted Traveler Program. When it comes to airport security, the stakes are high and all travelers need to be kept safe. But security and efficiency do not need to be incompatible. Current airport security policy is discouraging many Americans from flying.

The U.S. must continue to embrace Trusted Traveler programs. Programs such as PreCheck allow any American to become verified as a “trusted traveler” by volunteering background information and meeting criteria close to what is required for airport personnel to gain access to sensitive areas.

Passengers are allowed to use a separate, more efficient screening lane and would undergo less physical screening before boarding.

Let’s come together to urge our elected officials here in Idaho to make travel easier, more efficient and more fun. And, in the meantime, call your friends and loved ones from outside the state to pack a suitcase and take a trip to Idaho. Think of it as your personal contribution to the economic recovery.

Bill Connors is president/CEO of Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. Co-authors are Chuck Carter, national sales director, Red Lion Hotels; Pat Rice, executive director, Boise Centre/Boise Greater Auditorium District; and Jack Sibbach, director of marketing and public relations at Sun Valley Resort.

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