President George W. Bush has signed a bill that extends by one year--until October 26, 2005--the requirement for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to include biometrics in passports.
The administration, as well as industry groups such as the Travel Industry Association of America, had lobbied Congress for a two-year extension, but after it became clear that the House Judiciary Committee would only accept one year, "our mantra became one year is better than nothing," said Rick Webster, TIA government affairs director.
With the one-year extension now in effect, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will "on or about September 30" begin enrolling VWP travelers through the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program at all U.S. airports and seaports. US-VISIT, which went into effect in January of this year, already requires all visa holders to provide digital index finger scans and a digital photograph in order to verify identities.
The VWP will also be affected by another requirement starting October 26, 2004, when all passports used for travel in the program must be machine-readable. Those travelers without machine-readable passports will have to apply for a visa in order to enter the United States after October 26.
What are the implications for meeting planners trying to attract non-U.S. meeting delegates to their events? Webster said his organization is concerned that the number of requirements and deadlines for visa waiver countries will confuse prospective travelers who are now more than happy to travel to the U.S. because of the weak dollar. "Thankfully this is all happening when we have a weak dollar," he said. "We are an absolute bargain, so why wouldn’t they [foreign travelers] put up with a little bit of hassle?" The question, Webster said, is what kind of impact these requirements will have once travel in the U.S. becomes more expensive.
Webster added that there are "a lot of questions being raised" about the biometric technology and whether it can be successfully put into place in each of the 27 VWP program countries by next year.
The original deadline for for the biometrics requirement was originally set for October 1, 2003, but was extended until October 2004 by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Even with that extension, Webster said, the implementation of the machine-readable passport requirement "could create problems" since significant numbers of citizens in countries like France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland still carry older passports.
"We’ve always been concerned about this," Webster said. "And we’re disappointed more has not been done by the U.S. government to communicate about this deadline. We will be calling on the State and Homeland Security departments to communicate this message to prospective visitors from abroad. Posting a press release on a Web site is not sufficient—they have to be proactive."
Webster said he "absolutely" expects business and tourism groups could be lobbying for another extension a year from now. "It’s not a problem of a lack of will in these (visa waiver) countries, but it’s the new technology that’s involved," he said.