WHILE INDUSTRY OFFICIALS EXPECT a healthy increase in international business travel to the United States this year (see Meeting Professionals International's member survey, FutureWatch 2004), there is anecdotal evidence that the U.S. State Department's restrictive visa policy is having a negative effect on meeting attendance here.

The problem can be traced to changes made to visa approval procedures in response to the events of 9/11. These new policies require personal interviews for virtually all visa applicants and allow applications to be passed along to a number of other U.S. agencies for further security screening. The result? A visa process that may go on for months and often leads to denials.

The visa delays are worst for travelers coming from China, India, and Russia, but business visitors from other parts of Asia, Africa, and South America experience problems as well. “It's certainly become a bigger issue for meeting planners and attendees,” says Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

The Fifth World Chinese Life Insurance Congress recently canceled its August meeting in Hawaii because of anticipated difficulties in getting visa approvals. The state also lost a meeting in April when organizers of the Asia Pacific Investment Congress postponed it because of concerns that the large Chinese contingent would be unable to attend.

The problem is hitting home at the corporate level as well. Congress held hearings on the issue last summer and fall and heard testimony that visa delays and denials are hurting business. “Even though visas are eventually granted for many applications under review, the lack of timeliness and transparency in the process has caused organizers of conventions or conferences that include international guests to relocate their meetings in Canada or elsewhere in order to ensure that their foreign participants will be able to attend,” William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said in testimony.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project — a collaboration of several telecommunications standards bodies affiliated with hundreds of telecommunications companies around the world — holds approximately 250 meetings a year, according to Adrian Scrase, secretary of the 3GPP product coordination group. Scrase, who is located in Nice, France, says that ideally, one-third of those meetings would be held in North American destinations like Miami, Phoenix, and Boston. But, “more recently we've found our delegates in China have had trouble getting visas [to the United States],” Scrase says. “It's made us look carefully at the U.S. … We're looking for alternative venues in the North American footprint, such as Canada and Mexico.”

For example, according to Scrase, a number of meetings this spring involving a hundred delegates each are being held in Montréal and Vancouver.

“I never got involved with business visas two years ago,” says Elizabeth Dickson, adviser, immigration services, for Ingersoll-Rand Corp. in Elizabeth Lake, N.J. “Now, one-fifth of my job is dealing with business visas, getting visas, getting customers in to attend meetings.”

The visa process, Dickson says, “just doesn't go smoothly anymore.” She spends a substantial amount of time helping international employees through the process, including writing “very detailed letters” explaining that applicants are coming into the United States for legitimate business purposes and have very strong ties to their home countries.

“We had a very big leadership conference in November [in Indianapolis],” she says. “We started working with our employees in August.” And while she managed to get every attendee in, the real problems arise, she says, when unexpected internal meetings are needed and require attendees to come from China, India, the Middle East, or Latin America.

“It's a pretty critical issue,” she says.

The situation could worsen once the 27 “visa waiver” nations — whose citizens can enter the U.S. without visas for short visits — are required to issue machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers.

In recognition of that, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asked Congress for a two-year extension, arguing that it is unlikely any of those nations would be able to meet the October deadline. In the meantime, US-VISIT — through which travelers must be photographed and fingerprinted on arrival in the United States — will be extended to people from visa waiver countries beginning September 30.