International attendance was up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but the organizers hesitate to read the figures as a sign of recovery. Rather, they say the favorable exchange rate made travel to the United States a bargain. “Thank God for the weak dollar,” says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, operator of the mammoth trade show. He says CES would have done even better if the United States had a better attitude toward visitors.

Organizers of the International Woodworking Machinery and Furniture Supply Fair, which three associations sponsor every other year, would tend to agree. International attendance slipped 15 percent at its last show in 2002, and more than 500 exhibitors did not attend the Atlanta event because they couldn't get visas in time.

“The U.S. has put out a big sign to everyone saying ‘We don't want you,’” Shapiro says. “Our competitors around the world are jumping on that and saying ‘You're welcome here.’”

Medical conferences seem to be holding their own, however. “It's something we were worried about,” admits Elizabeth Wilson, senior director of business partnerships for the American College of Cardiology, which held its annual conference in New Orleans in March. International attendance this year was better than last. Of more than 16,000 professionals, nearly 5,881 traveled from overseas compared to 5,200 last year.

Clogged Application Process

Visitors from many developing countries already face a process for obtaining visas to attend U.S. conferences and trade shows. In January of this year, the US-VISIT program went into effect; it involves capturing fingerprint images and photographing all entering visa holders. As of October 2004, even visitors from the 27 countries that are part of the visa waiver program — those who can enter the country with a valid passport, but without a visa — will undergo the same process at immigration points.

Originally, the U.S. Patriot Act decreed that visitors from visa waiver countries carry passports with embedded, digitally encrypted facial data no later than October 2004. At press time, however, tourism officials and Bush administration staff were lobbying Congress to extend that deadline by two years because only a few countries are expected to have the technology in place by October. Even the United States won't have the capability to read the high-tech passports at all points of entry this year. “A very strong case has been made for the need for an extension,” says Edward Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America, adding that it's difficult to predict if Congress will extend the deadline. If it is not extended, he says, anyone from those 27 countries who does not have a biometric passport after October 26, 2004, will have to obtain a visa.

Visa delays or denials are already wreaking havoc with some conferences and trade shows. A new policy implemented in 2003 requires a personal interview with a consular or embassy employee. This has not only taxed the staffs at overseas state departments, it has inconvenienced visa applicants in countries like China and certain African nations, who may have to spend time and money traveling hundreds of miles for interviews. “Now, they have to take a trip before they take a trip,” says Fluhr.

“There is a lot going on — new rules being created and implemented — without enough attention to resources,” Fluhr says. “That's why you're getting such long waits for visas.” He advises anyone organizing an international meeting in the United States to start early to ensure that attendees are applying for visas in a timely manner.