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
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.