Travel industry groups hailed the introduction of a bill to boost inbound travel to the U.S. by making it easier for international visitors to enter the country.
The INVITE Act, introduced last week by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Haw.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), would expand the Global Entry program at U.S. airports and take other steps to speed up the entry process for international visitors.
The INVITE Act is part of package with two other bills – the NATIVE Act, which would make tribal organizations eligible for inclusion in national tourism promotion efforts, and the Explore America Act, which would provide additional funding for heritage tourism to Preserve America Communities like Hawaii’s Maui and Kauai counties.
The U.S. Travel Association, ASTA and NTA have all backed the INVITE Act, and officials said they are encouraged by the fact that the bill’s sponsors are bipartisan, making it likely to attract bipartisan support in Congress.
“People need to understand that the INVITE Act is not about travel – it’s about the U.S. economy,” said U.S. Travel president and CEO Roger Dow.
“Research shows that holdups in the CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) entry process are a significant impediment to international travelers, one that could cost our economy $95 billion and more than 50,000 jobs over the next five years.”
The INVITE Act calls for a review of a 2008 Department of Homeland Security program that set a goal of facilitating entry for visitors from abroad at 20 U.S. airports, said Patricia Rojas-Ungar, U.S. Travel’s vice president of government affairs.
The bill also would create public-private partnerships to work toward improving the entry process at those airports.
Long wait times at major U.S. airports are a major barrier to inbound travel.
Rojas-Ungar noted a 2013 USTA report that analyzed wait times at major U.S. airports. Among its findings: a peak wait time of nearly five hours at Miami International in April 2013; a peak wait of three-and-half hours at Los Angeles International in March 2013, and a peak wait time of nearly five hours at New York’s JFK in December 2012.
The INVITE act also would streamline the Global Entry application process for U.S. citizens by allowing them to apply for expedited clearance at the same time they apply for a passport, according to Rojas-Ungar.
With more citizens cleared for Global Entry, customs and border personnel would be freed up to address the long lines of international visitors through customs.
Currently there are a few countries outside the U.S. whose citizens can apply for Global Entry as well. They include Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea and Mexico, she said.
ASTA’s Eben Peck, vice president of government affairs, called the INVITE Act, “a key part in the campaign to lower barriers to international visitors.”
Opportunities for U.S. agents
Historically ASTA has not been involved in inbound travel issues, since most of its members deal with outbound travel, but that has changed, said Peck.
ASTA now joins with other travel industry groups working on boosting international travel for several reasons, including the fact that about 800 ASTA members currently handle inbound travel.
The trade association also sees opportunities for U.S. travel agents as inbound travel expands.
Peck noted that the Obama Administration set a goal in 2012 of attracting 100 million international travelers yearly to the U.S. by 2021. “We think if that many people come here they would use the services of domestic agents around the U.S.,” he said.
An ‘explosion’ of outbound travel
“The broader theme is to lower barriers to travel across the board,” Peck added. “One of the main reforms in that connection is the Visa Waiver program.”
The Visa Waiver program allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa for stays of up to 90 days for business or leisure.
If a country is part of that program it’s easier for their citizens to visit the U.S., “but it also means it’s easier for Americans to go there,” Peck said.
“If we lower our barriers, they will lower theirs and that could lead to an explosion in outbound travel [from the U.S.].”