ORLANDO—The next step in promoting the United States as a tourist attraction to international travelers is underway, and visa reform received a big push forward Thursday when President Barack Obama spoke about its potential positive implications and announced the creation of a task force to accelerate visa reform plans.
Hoteliers across the U.S. celebrated Obama’s remarks, saying efforts to ease the burden of traveling to the U.S. from important business partner countries like Brazil, India and China would directly affect the hotel industry.
“This presents a new world of opportunities for hotels and destinations. U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are all key destinations for Chinese travelers,” said Dave Horton, global head of Hilton Hotels & Resorts. “As it becomes easier for visitors to travel abroad, we expect that other cities will emerge as leading destinations as well.”
“I see the greatest pressure building from the international group side. There are many European groups that meet only in Europe because a large part of their contingent doesn’t want to go through the trouble of traveling to the U.S.,” said Burt Cabañas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality International. “Layer on top of that the requirements for a visa, and they’d rather stay in the European Commonwealth.”
Cabañas said opening the door to an easier visa process would boost the number of meetings that technology companies hold on the West Coast of the U.S., as well as the number of Fortune 500 companies that will choose to meet in New York.
“Hotels will be right at the apex of that,” he said.
In front of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World Resorts’ Magic Kingdom Park in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, Obama said the departments of State and Homeland Security are working together to improve and speed up the visa process for certain categories of travelers. Under a new initiative, qualified foreign visitors who were thoroughly screened during a prior visa application may be able to renew their visas without undergoing the current multi-tiered visa screening process.
A main part of the president’s new initiative is to “accelerate our ability to process visas from China, India and Brazil by 40%,” Obama said. “Right now. Not five years from now.”
The U.S. Travel Association has been lobbying for such action for some time, issuing a report titled “Ready for Takeoff” in November and capturing the support of many of the travel industry’s top CEOs. “Ready for Takeoff” is a comprehensive review of the impact visitor visa and entry processes have on job creation, economic growth and exports.
Alvaro Diago, COO of the Latin America and Caribbean regions for InterContinental Hotels Group, called the president’s announcement “positive.”
“Many people have not been able to get visas, sending them to other countries, and the U.S. has missed the opportunity to host them,” he said.
Obama repeatedly touted the fact that the travel and tourism industry employs a large number of American workers, and getting America’s unemployment rate down is something that has been on his plate since he was first elected.
“The more folks who visit America, the more Americans get back to work,” he said Thursday.
Nancy Johnson, American Hotel & Lodging Association chair and executive VP of development for Carlson Hotels, said in a statement after the speech that tourism is one of the few industries showing positive economic growth.
“Promoting travel produces a multiplier effect that benefits all industries and the (U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board) estimates we could add 500,000 new U.S. jobs by 2015 with no cost to tax payers,” she said. “We commend the president for taking this positive step forward.”
Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton Worldwide, issued a statement Thursday that pointed to “significant progress” in welcoming more visitors to the U.S.
“The potential exists to begin adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy and creating more than 1 million U.S.-based jobs in the next decade,” Nassetta said. “This is a stimulus that everyone can agree on, regardless of political affiliation, and doesn't cost the taxpayer a dime since the expenses are offset by visa application fees and other charges. We look forward to continuing to work together as an industry and a nation on this critical issue."
Who will see the benefits?
Once Obama’s plans are put into action, which he said would happen “immediately,” the U.S. port cities will be the first to see benefits, Cabañas said. Hawaii, he said, will profit immensely from more Asia/Pacific travelers.
AH&LA President and CEO Joe McInerney said in a statement Thursday that Obama’s efforts will benefit “every community.”
“By focusing on these high-growth sectors, the United States is poised to create jobs and strengthen the economy,” said McInerney, who attended the speech in Orlando.
Doug Dreher, president and CEO of The Hotel Group, said the task force announced by Obama on Thursday is an important step toward enhancing international travel.
“The United States has unsurpassed destinations and experiences and with this new visa reform and via the Travel Promotion Act and Discover America marketing campaign, we now are lining up an effective coalition to improve international travel,” he said. “While the direct benefit for the 51,000 domestic hotels may vary from geographic region and market, overall it will have a positive impact for our industry as we have been mired under 60% occupancy for an unprecedented three years.”
Cabañas said he was confident Obama wasn’t just saying what Americans wanted to hear without a plan to back it up. He said he has talked to politicians in Hawaii who have been in discussion about allowing South Koreans with no visa to travel to the islands.
“It’s in the works,” he said. “I know those discussions were as much as 18 months old. I believe that he will respond and will do it.”
Obama on Thursday addressed border security issues, saying “there’s no reason we can’t” protect the borders and keep terrorists out while easing the entry for safe international tourists.
Cabañas said if someone wants to get into the United States illegally, going through the visa process, no matter how stringent it is, wouldn’t be first on their priority list.
“Odds are that isn’t the person we’re trying to keep out,” he said.