Washington—As more foreign tourists come to the United States on spending sprees, some retail groups wants to put a JOLT into Congress—making it easier for those free spenders to get visas to travel here.
“The Jobs Originated through Launching Travel Act, or JOLT Act,” is scheduled for a hearing today before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.
And, the National Retail Federation (NRF) and other retail groups are urging the Senate to approve the legislation that would that would boost travel and tourism by reducing the time it takes to process visa applications in key countries.
“Foreign tourists and business people want to come to the United States and shop in our stores, but long lines for visas have them taking their money elsewhere,” Matthew Shay, NPF president, said. “Retailers wouldn’t tell customers to wait for weeks and neither should the State Department. Speeding up the visa process is one of the quickest ways to boost U.S. economy, and we should do it as soon as possible.”
NRF has led the retail industry’s fight on the issue “because newly affluent citizens from emerging economies like China and India often spend lavishly while in the United State sand are highly valued as customers by U.S.retailers.”
A perfect example of how these tourists are having a positive impact at retail could be seen in Tiffany & Co.’s earnings report released last week. The luxury jeweler said foreign tourists shopping at its New York and branch stores accounted for a greater share of sales than in the past.
“In fact, full year sales to foreign tourists represented an estimated 23% of U.S. sales in 2011 versus 17% and 15% in 2010 and 2009,” said Mark Aaron, vice president, investor relations at Tiffany.
Studies show that, on average, each overseas visitor spends about $4,000, said senators who support JOLT, in a release.
BRIC Tourists ‘Discouraged by Hassles in Our Visa Process’
A U.S. Travel Association study found that reducing visa waits to 10 days could create 1.3 million more U.S. jobs and add more than $850 billion to the U.S. economy by 2020.
If enacted, JOLT would require that interviews for visas be conducted within 15 days of an appointment being requested. After one year, the time would be reduced to 10 days. In India,China and Brazil–key markets for foreign tourists–the visa waiting times had been as long as 120 days.
The bill would also require the State Department to establish a program for “premium processing” under which a visa would be issued within three business days for those willing to pay extra. The department would be authorized to use technology to speed up the process, and to create “mobile interview units” that could be dispatched to cities with 1 million or more population that do not have a U.S. embassy or consulate.
JOLT would also encourage the State Department to modify agreements with certain countries on a nonreciprocal basis to allow for longer visa validity periods. In addition, the current 180-day stay limit for Canadians would be extended to 240 days for travelers over 50 and their families, the Visa Waiver Program would be updated, and foreign dignitaries could be added to the Global Entry Program that expedites clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers.
The State Department would also be allowed to encourage off-peak visa applications by setting lower fees during slow periods of the year.
“The foreign press has had a field day, literally at our expense, by retelling horror stories of foreign visitors unable to come to the United States,” said Roger Dow, president/ceo at U.S. Travel Association. “The global travel market is booming, for both leisure and business travel. As demand rises, especially in key emerging markets, prospective travelers have choices about their global destinations. Interest in visiting the United States remains strong, but potential visitors are discouraged by real and perceived hassles in our visa process that could be eliminated without compromising security.”
The legislation is the latest in a series of efforts to boost tourism by easing visa restrictions. A spending bill signed into law in December included provisions requiring the State Department to reduce the wait time in China, India and Brazil, though time limits were not specified.
In January, President Obama announced a program requiring visa processing capacity in China and Brazil to be increased by 40% in 2012, and to ensure that 80% of visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of the time their applications are received.
The JOLT Act has bipartisan sponsors including subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., along with Senators Mike Lee, R-Utah; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.