***ArnieWeissmann-fullThere’s a story I’ve heard repeated more than once over the past few years:

A former Secretary of Homeland Security listened somewhat impatiently as a well-known hotel CEO explained that immigration officers were scaring off international visitors and that TSA procedures were discouraging people from flying.

The secretary replied: “You don’t think for a moment, do you, that my objective is to get people into your hotels?”

Although the objective of Homeland Security has not changed, the reply today would likely be far less dismissive of tourism concerns.

The T20 meeting of G20 tourism ministers in Merida, Mexico, last week reflected a significant shift in the way governments view travel and tourism.

This new attitude is a gift of the recession. Travel and tourism is now seen as an economic engine and job creator even in countries like the U.S. and Mexico, whose economies are complex and not largely dependent upon tourism.

In some ways, visa facilitation, which was the primary topic of the T20 summit and was the sole focus of their recommendation to G20 heads of state, is a curious place for the ministers to begin testing their influence.

Whether the conversation above between a Homeland Security chief and hotelier ever really happened, it certainly reflects a simple truth: Security issues are the biggest potential roadblock to progress to increase the number of travelers.

And visas, by design, stand at the crossroads of tourism and security.

In other ways, visa facilitation is the perfect place for the ministers to start. If you suddenly find yourself with some political capital, as the T20 ministers did, why not seize the moment and bet it on something meaningful?

The T20 “Merida Declaration” will be introduced to the G20 by Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, but there is no guarantee that its principles will be adopted by the G20 heads of state.

For a moment, however, let’s imagine they are. What might happen next? And what is the endgame?

Two conversations I had during the T20 might provide clues.

Wykeham McNeill, the tourism minister of Jamaica, foresees a widening network of interlocking visa-waiver circles.

The U.S. reciprocal Visa Waiver Program, with its 36 member countries, is one such circle.

Another is what is commonly referred to as the Schengen visa (named after the city in Luxembourg where it was negotiated). If you are granted a Schengen, you can move freely among 23 European Union and three non-E.U. countries without having to apply for another visa.

A proposed visa-free zone among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is being fast-tracked by that organization.

McNeill believes that as biometric security technology, such as iris scanning and electronic fingerprinting, is increasingly adopted and uniformly applied, these and other circles will begin to interlock.

If the U.S. feels comfortable that Schengen applicants are meeting the same security requirements and verification procedures as countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, the two programs will unite, and then other countries, wanting to tap into these programs, will raise their standards to become accepted.

“Wherever you are from, ultimately you either will or will not have the right to travel,” he said.

I related this conversation to Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, because of all the people I know in the travel industry, I thought he might have the keenest insight into what must occur in order to provide security agencies with comfort in technology systems that would support interlocking circles.

Rodrigues is the former CEO of Visa International, and oversaw a credit system relied upon by hundreds of countries, millions of merchants and hundreds of millions of consumers to transfer billions of dollars daily, worldwide.

The key to that system, Rodrigues said, is “interoperability.”

Interoperability occurs when multiple systems can transfer data in a way that’s understandable to all. In the world of credit cards, some countries have chips embedded in the cards, others do not. Some are swiped, some are tapped.

But the myriad systems nonetheless can access data from one another, read it, and determine who owes what to whom.

As complex as credit card technology is, and with all the money that is at stake to motivate companies to create secure systems, a global visa technology protocol would need to be even tighter.

After all, if the level of fraud that occurs in the credit world was mirrored in visa screening failures, the consequences for world stability could be far more significant than in instances of credit card fraud.

The visa verification systems that the U.S. and Europe individually maintain appear to be secure enough on their own. But to obtain interoperability between their systems and others will require significantly more work.

“If there weren’t already credit cards in place, it would be easier” to solve the problems credit card companies face, Rodrigues observed. “We’d go straight to digital and smartphone technology. You wouldn’t have plastic.”

Likewise, he said, if there weren’t already legacy passport and visa systems in place, it would be easier to come up with an elegant solution.

McNeill and Rodrigues agree that, at the end of the day, governments must come up with a shared vision for the future.

But for now, we have no guarantee when that might happen, let alone when the needed technology will be built. Even so, I believe there is a force that will put pressure on such systems to be conceptualized and built.

It is the same thing that is behind the embrace of travel and tourism by countries like the U.S. and Mexico: economics.

Although the overriding spirit of the T20 meeting was one of cooperation and unity, at the end of the day tourism does not grow as fast as market share shifts.

As U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow has been shouting since he came into office, onerous visa procedures + scary immigration officers = lost market share.

Those countries that enact visa reform and immigration efficiency without sacrificing security will have a market advantage over those that don’t. There are good reasons to make it easy for qualified applicants to come into your country.

Mexico realizes this perhaps better than anyone else. Mexico created an interlocking circle without even entering into a negotiation when the country unilaterally declared that if you have obtained a U.S. visa, that’s good enough, and you can enter Mexico from the U.S. without applying for a Mexican visa.

Presumably, they still keep their lists of undesirables who would be stopped at the border, but they have saved themselves — and importantly, travelers — a lot of red tape.

This policy has likely increased Mexico’s market share, possibly at the expense of room nights that otherwise might have been spent in the United States.

Although the technology, diplomacy and security challenges can appear daunting, last week travel took a significant step. Was it a giant step forward, or a diplomatic misstep?

We’ll find out next month after the G20 meeting in Cabo San Lucas.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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