uch has been written about how the perceived threat of terrorism has affected Americans' travel patterns abroad. Much less has been written about what sort of impact the war on terror is having on the travel patterns of people wishing to visit the U.S. from abroad.

There's a lot going on there -- decisions are being made right now that will have a profound impact on this sector of the industry. Its numbers are worthy of attention: The Travel Industry Association of America says foreign tourists contributed about $91 billion to the economy in 2001 -- $8 billion more than Americans spent while traveling abroad.

The first American to greet foreign arrivals is usually an agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the chronically underfunded stepchild of the Department of Justice. For now, the greeting is predictable, if somewhat bureaucratic. But INS agents -- and the INS itself -- are about to undergo two dramatic changes resulting from the war on terrorism.

INS rules determine, among other things, the length of time a visitor can stay in the U.S. Last March, in a measure specifically cited as being terrorism-related, changes were proposed to INS rules governing the types of visas that must be obtained by about a third of all visitors to the U.S., including those from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries.

Currently, the length of such visas is six months. Under the proposed rules, however, immigration officers would have broad authority in deciding how long a visitor could stay.

This, of course, would wreak havoc on visitors who may have planned a three-month stay, only to arrive and be handed a 30-day visa. Or on visitors who don't speak English well enough to make their case for staying longer. The INS has conceded that, under the proposed rules, it's possible that members of a group who end up speaking to different agents at the same airport could receive visas of varying terms.

Naturally, tourist areas that receive high volumes of international visitors are worried that shorter stays will negatively impact their economies.

Also anxious are foreign tour operators who send people to the U.S. but who won't know whether clients will be given enough time to complete their itineraries.

And the TIA is concerned that foreign travelers from affected countries not associated with terrorism -- Brazil or South Korea, for example -- will simply choose to go somewhere else if they're uncertain about the term of the visa they may receive.

I mentioned above that there are two dramatic changes facing the INS. The second is that, as of March 1, it will leave the DOJ and become part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Under the DHS, a director of border and transportation security will be charged with establishing and administering rules for granting visas.

The DOJ is expected to advance the proposed rule changes this month or next. In any case, it wants to have it nailed down before the INS leaves its jurisdiction. We've heard rumors that a modification to the proposed rules will allow visitors to stay 90 days as the "default" term, with exceptions made at the discretion of immigration agents. This is the same length given to visitors from the 28 countries whose citizens need no visa to visit the U.S. While guests from these countries (e.g., Canadians, western Europeans and the Japanese) typically have little difficulty getting an extension, it's unclear whether the same will be true for the others.

I think the industry can live with a 90-day visa. But I worry that after the INS becomes part of the DHS, it may, in a DHS culture, lose sight of the service aspects of its function. Yes, we've got to keep the bad guys out, but we also have to let the good guys in -- and make them glad they chose to come here.

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