The U.S. Travel Association spent much of the past two years focused on reopening borders and ensuring relief for the battered travel industry.
With those hurdles cleared, the association is squarely focused on a problem that it believes Washington can solve: Visa wait times that have hit more than two years for travelers in some key markets.
U.S. Travel has in recent months called the bottlenecks both a "de facto border closure" and the "equivalent of a travel ban." The association first highlighted the problem over the summer, when waits swelled to 400 days. Now, wait times for visa interviews at embassies in some countries have grown to more than 800 days: In Guadalajara, Mexico, the estimated wait is 814 days and in New Delhi, 984 days, per the State Department's website.
The backlog is impacting countries that are typically among the top 10 inbound markets, including Brazil, India and Mexico, that are not members of the visa waiver program. U.S. Travel estimates the delays will be responsible for the loss of nearly 7 million potential visitors and $12 billion in projected spending in 2023.
U.S. Travel CEO Geoff Freeman said tackling the "extreme" wait times is a priority.
"U.S. Travel uniquely exists to increase travel to and within the United States," he said. "Solving this issue is within the control of the Biden administration, and we will continue to spotlight the consequences of inaction until it's resolved. As we move deeper into 2023, we will pursue tangible steps to protect and increase leisure, business transient and group travel, as well."
The growing wait times coincide with other headwinds the inbound travel market faces, such as the strength of the U.S. dollar, the ongoing closure of China and record-high airfares.
But unlike those issues, Freeman said, Washington has the tools to solve this one.
"The Biden administration must focus on what is in its control and take immediate action to lower wait times," he said. "We simply cannot afford to give travelers any reason to avoid visiting the U.S."
Among solutions U.S. Travel recommends is to lower visa wait times to 21 days in Brazil, Mexico and India by April; reinstate an executive order to process 80% of visas worldwide within 21 days by Sept. 30; increase consular staffing and resources in high-volume countries; waive interviews for some visa renewals; and provide faster visa processing for large groups, conventions and events in the U.S.
U.S. Travel's "They Wait, We Lose" campaign highlights the economic cost of delaying visits from qualified international travelers. As part of the campaign, it launched a website, USVisaDelays.com, featuring global travelers and U.S. businesses, the two groups it says are most affected by visa wait times.
U.S. Travel isn't the only organization that claims the problem is preventing a full recovery of the U.S. travel sector. Catherine Prather, president of the National Tour Association, said the group has been encouraging its members to rally Congress about the issue at a grassroots level.
"We need this, and we need it quickly, as it not only affects inbound leisure travel but also business travel," she said.
A State Department spokesperson said that visa interview appointment wait times are "steadily dropping" and that as of November the median worldwide wait time for a tourist visa interview appointment was approximately two months.
However, the spokesperson said that locations with longer wait times "are primarily a result of pent-up demand for visas outpacing consular staffing levels. ... While we have made great strides in recovering from pandemic-related closures and staffing challenges, we are still working to respond to the significant demand for visa services."