International visitors to the U.S. increased about 10 percent last year compared to 2009, but for the 30 members of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which serves as an advisory body to the Secretary of Commerce, changes in U.S. visa policy and customer service are needed to improve the travel experience for international visitors.

The board, which consists of 30 travel industry leaders, presented U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke at a February 1 meeting with 10 recommendations, including the establishment of a maximum wait time of five days for visa processing to make it competitive with European countries. Currently, the process can take weeks, even months, in places like China, Brazil, and to a lesser extent, India. This is a major concern for event organizers as they seek to tap into these markets.

To accomplish this, the board recommends hiring more visa officers and opening additional processing locations in China, Brazil, and India. The board also recommends giving the State Department more discretion in conducting in-person visa interviews.

“Challenges with visas and the experience crossing the country’s borders are important obstacles to travel to the U.S. At a time when the country is in the process of beginning to promote travel to the U.S. in international markets, it seems quite appropriate to address these obstacles,” states the letter, signed by the advisory board’s chairman, Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive officer, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Among other recommendations, the advisory board also suggests establishing a goal for wait times at international airports and cruise terminals of less than 20 minutes.

At the meeting, Locke presented the advisory board with the latest data on travel to the U.S.: More than 55 million international visitors traveled to the U.S. during the first 11 months of 2010, a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2009. International visitor spending increased 11 percent to $123 billion. Overall, there was a 47 percent surge in the travel and tourism trade surplus in 2010. The surplus now exceeds $28 billion.

"With a $28.3 billion trade surplus in the first 11 months of 2010, this industry has a huge role to play in helping our country answer President Obama's call to double our exports by 2015 and win the future," said Locke, in a press release. Through November 2010, total U.S. exports were up 17 percent, and travel and tourism is on track to contribute to significant export growth.