The process for international visitors to enter the U.S. is so under-resourced that resulting delays and headaches are harming regions and businesses dependent upon tourism, according to a letter from travel industry leaders to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The letter, organized by the U.S. Travel Association, urges Johnson to pursue measures to help Customs and Border Protection (CBP) better cope with the ever-increasing flow of visitors.
Signers include public and private entities from throughout the travel sphere, for example: American Express Company; Avis Budget Group; Expedia, Inc.; Hilton Worldwide; Marriott International; 14 of the nation's largest airports and city and state tourism offices from across the country.
"In recent years international visitors and U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. have faced significant wait times at major air and sea ports of entry—surpassing four hours for primary processing at some locations," the letter reads. "These delays undermine the ongoing efforts of cities and states to increase international visitation and threaten valuable revenue derived from international traveler spending."
It continues: "[O]verseas visitors spent $99 billion in the U.S. in 2012—an average of $4,400 by each overseas visitor. Lengthy air and sea port CBP wait-time delays will only discourage return visits and send the message to prospective visitors that the U.S. arrival process is not a welcoming environment for foreign visitors, potentially costing the U.S. economy billions in spending."
The letter notes that the FY2014 Homeland Security appropriation includes the hiring of 2,000 additional CBP officers, and urges that at least half of those be dedicated to high-volume air ports of entry where delays are most severe.
The letter also urges the agency to develop metrics that would help deploy CBP staff so as to better reduce wait times. Such metrics are provided for in the immigration reform package passed by the U.S. Senate last year; companion legislation has yet to be taken up by the House.
The letter further points to areas of success in modernizing the customs entry process—notably the development of the Global Entry and Automated Passport Control programs—and urges the expansion of those efforts.
"The benefits of inbound travel are so widely understood that we hardly need to preach about them anymore—the massive tax revenues, the creation of unexportable jobs, the hugely positive contribution to our trade balance," said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow. "President Obama clearly understood that when he set the goal of attracting 100 million international visitors annually by 2021. But we need to invest in order to make that goal workable—and if we do, the return on that investment will be gigantic and directly touch Americans in every corner of the country."
Click here to read the full letter.
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