By Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Tourism industry leaders will propose a $10 fee for visitors from England, France, Germany and 24 other "visa waiver countries" -- money that would be spent to promote travel to the United States and to pay for ways to ease border inspection bottlenecks, it was announced Friday.
The travel industry will also propose adding 10 nations to the list of 27 countries whose citizens can travel with only a passport, not needing a visa, which requires a more thorough background check.
The latter proposal, especially, is likely to be opposed by some security hawks, who believe visa exemptions increase the threat to the United States by allowing people to enter with a minimum of scrutiny.
But former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge will endorse the proposals, according to the Discover America Partnership, the umbrella group announcing the proposal.
Ridge, a paid consultant for the travel group, was the first Homeland Security chief appointed when the department was created following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The U.S. travel industry says overseas travel to the United States has fallen 17 percent since its peak in 2000, and they blame U.S. security screening practices that make travel difficult, and international perceptions that visitors are no longer welcome here.
The solution, the travel industry says, is two-fold:
The United States should begin charging a $10 "visa waiver transaction fee," the group says, for travelers from the visa-waiver countries.
The fee would raise $200 million a year, half to be used promoting tourism, and half to be spent improving and speeding up security at border checkpoints, the group said.
The change would attract an additional 1.6 million visitors a year, yielding $8 billion in spending and $850 million in new federal tax revenue, according to the group, citing a study it commissioned from Tourism Economics.
The number of countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the United States without a visa should be expanded.
Currently, countries must meet certain requirements to join that coveted list. If more than 3 percent of its prospective travelers fail to get visas, the country is excluded from the list. The Discover America Partnership says the threshold should be raised to 10 percent, which would bring another 10 countries into the fold.
And the United States should instead eliminate countries whose residents overstay their visas disproportionately, the group says.
Expanding the list of visa-waiver countries would have a profound impact on travel, the group says. When citizens from Japan and the United Kingdom were first allowed to travel without visas, visitation from those countries jumped 21 percent in one year, they say.
Conversely, visits from Uruguayan citizens plummeted 65 percent the month after the country was removed from the list in 2003.
The $10 surcharge "represents a virtually unnoticeable increase in a visitor's travel budget," the group said. The average overseas visitor spends over $4,000 per trip.
But at least one security advocate says the travel industry is letting its short-term quest for profits blind it to the long-term consequences of another terrorist attack.
"If anybody ought to be a big proponent of requiring visas, it ought to be the people in the travel industry," said Michael Cutler of the Center for Immigration Studies and a former senior special agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Citizenship and Immigration Services).
The travel industry was devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, and the visa application process adds vital layers of protection that could prevent another attack.
Calling people in the travel industry "short-sighted," Cutler said the 40-some questions visa applicants answer is a "treasure trove of investigative leads" if the person overstays the visa or commits a crime, Cutler said.
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