Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the Bush administration is making headway in speeding the processing of foreign visitors, despite increased security needs following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Powell told a business group in Washington the United States cannot afford to lose its more than $80-billion-a-year tourist trade.
Security-related delays in the issuance of visas have been a major irritant in U.S. relations with Muslim and other countries since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
But Mr. Powell says innovations including the high-tech US-VISIT system that went into effect in January have dramatically reduced the waiting times for U.S. visas and entry formalities at American airports, at a time when international tourism has begun to return to levels that prevailed before 9/11.
Addressing the annual tourism meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Mr. Powell said tourists and other visitors including students and business people are vital to both the United States' economy and its standing in the world.
He said the United States needs to protect its security, yet cannot afford to have would-be visitors go elsewhere because of visa hassles or other impediments. "If we lose legitimate foreign scholars, if we lose them to procedural frustrations, because it's too hard to get a visa, because they don't want to be bothered, because they're going to get hassled at the airport coming into the United States, we risk losing their goodwill and that is a priceless thing to lose," he said. "The essential embracing spirit of America's attitude toward people is our greatest asset, and we must work together to insure that our country remains a beacon for students, international tourists, immigrants and business people."
Mr. Powell said that despite initial complaints from some countries, new U.S. airport formalities requiring the digital fingerprints and photos from entering tourists are now well-received and have added only a few seconds to processing times.
He said that 97 per cent of visa applications from would-be visitors from countries where U.S. visas are required in advance are now processed within one or two days, and he said waiting times for approval for visiting scholars are less than half what they were a year ago.
Mr. Powell urged the Chamber of Commerce to support the Bush administration's request to Congress to push back for two years a requirement that the 27 countries with no-visa entry privileges start using high-tech "bio-metric" passports.
The 27 so-called "visa-waiver" countries face an October 26 deadline for adopting the passports that would contain digital identification data, but many have encountered technical problems.
The Secretary said in the absence of an extension, U.S. embassies in the affected countries, including key allies Japan, Britain, Germany and Italy, would be swamped by millions of visa applications.
He said tourism levels this year appear to be running well ahead of 2003, when some 42 million foreign visitors spent over $83 billion in the United States. American travelers abroad spent $78 billion.