Every year, millions of foreigners want to visit the United States and tour our great nation. They also want to spend money here – lots of it. Unfortunately, our government makes it terribly difficult for them to do so. As we debate creative ways to boost our economy, create jobs and cut the deficit, we should consider making it easier for foreigners to become U.S. tourists.
Take Brazil. The Brazilian economy is one of the fastest-growing large economies in the world right now. But Brazilian products cost more because of the country’s high tariffs on imports. In December 2010 the original iPad was released in Brazilian stores for $985, which was almost twice as much as in the United States and one of the highest official prices for an iPad anywhere, according to Macworld Brazil.
While this helps encourage Brazilian production – in fact, Apple recently opened an iPad factory in Brazil, which is expected to begin shipping in December of this year – many Brazilian consumers respond by going out of Brazil to do much of their purchasing.
We should make the United States their first choice, but we discourage Brazilians from coming here. For instance, we have only four consular offices in all of Brazil, even though the country is larger than the continental United States.
It can take as long as 141 days for Brazilians to get an appointment at the U.S. consulate in San Paolo for a mandatory in-person visa interview. Even then, on the day of the appointment they must wait in a line for hours. As our staff witnessed firsthand during a recent visit to the visa section of the U.S. consulate in Sao Paulo, the lines are long due to high demand coupled with a limited number of metal detectors, small reception space and a limited number of windows to receive applicants.
Yet this hard-working and diligent staff still manages to process some 2,300, Brazilian visas each day. That’s about 16,000 a week and some 840,000 a year. Each visa applicant pays $140, and some 95 percent are approved. That means the United States takes in more than $100 million annually just from these visas, which more than covers the cost of processing. If this was a business, it would be quite profitable, and the business would quickly invest in more metal detectors, space and staff to absorb the pent up demand, increasing total revenue.
Brazilians do not like the process, but hundreds of thousands still go through it each year. Imagine how many more Brazilians would come to the United States if the process was simpler and quicker.
What if we doubled the number of Brazilian visitors to the United States? The U.S. Travel Association estimates that total spending, including spending on international airfare, per Brazilian arrival to the U.S. averaged $4,940 in 2010. Another 840,000 visitors would mean more than a billion dollars pumped into the U.S. economy. That’s a lot of jobs and tax revenue for visitors who require very little in the way of government service. And if we took the same approach for other countries, we would seriously cut our unemployment rate. According to the U.S. Travel Association, Brazilian tourism alone supported 42,000 U.S. jobs in 2010.
The Senate is considering bipartisan legislation to do just that. The “International Tourism Facilitation Act,” introduced by Tourism Caucus Co-Chairs Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), gives the State Department greater flexibility to reinvest fees charged for visas on personnel and other resources needed to process visas more efficiently. The bill also allows the State Department to waive visa interviews for individuals who previously held a U.S. visa. This provision would allow consulate employees to focus their precious time on people never previously vetted.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates that recapturing America’s historic share of worldwide overseas travel would create up to 1.3 million U.S. jobs by 2020 and produce $859 billion in cumulative additional economic output. Tell me again why we aren’t doing all we can to encourage more tourism?
America is a great country. By sharing it with others we can boost our economy, create jobs and improve America’s image abroad. But if we want more tourists, we have to start making them feel welcome and wanted.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream".