I was a presenter at a session on inbound international meetings at the Professional Convention Management Association meeting in Hawaii last month. Planners in that session said their greatest challenge in getting international attendees to their U.S. meetings was the U.S. visa application process. Several said their international attendance had plummeted for this reason.
A December poll of readers of our MeetingsNet Extra e-newsletter found that, overwhelmingly, the top challenge respondents had in planning U.S. meetings with international attendance was the visa process, second was the high cost of travel and events in the United States, and third was anti-American attitudes. Indeed, a recent independent poll of 8,000 people from G8 countries found that 55 percent of Japanese respondents, 36 percent of Germans, and 32 percent of French were less likely to travel to the United States because of its “unilateral” war on terrorism and foreign policies. (See “Politically Speaking,” page 18.)
While there may be little our industry can do to counter anti-Bush or anti-American attitudes, we can create a united lobbying effort to make the visa application process less onerous, and thereby mitigate the economic loss for the meetings, exhibitions, and travel industry caused by the drop in international attendees, exhibitors, and visitors.
The Travel Industry Association of America and the International Association for Exhibition Management have both been active in Washington on visa issues, and PCMA will hold a forum on February 23 to discuss visa issues, among others (see page 6 for details). But until all the industry organizations unite to make the visa process less difficult, no reform is likely. Meeting Professionals International, the Convention Industry Council, the American Society of Association Executives, and other industry groups need to join in and form a united effort.
Economic loss is the most powerful argument on Capitol Hill for reforming the visa application process, which, among other things, requires applicants to be interviewed in person at a U.S. Consulate office. But it is not, for me, the most important reason. One person in our PCMA session asked: “Do you know what people go through to get a U.S. visa? It's a humiliating experience.”
Why humiliation might be necessary to obtain a U.S. visa I can't fathom. Can you?
For those who argue “Better safe than sorry” with regard not only to the visa application process but to zealous passenger screening at U.S. airports, I highly recommend James Fallows' article “Success Without Victory” in this month's Atlantic Monthly. He points out there will never be enough money to cover all the security risks we face, so we must prioritize and spend money accordingly. Spend more money keeping loose nukes out of the hands of terrorists, for example, and less on airport security that requires granny to take off her shoes, or on a visa application process that results not only in economic loss for U.S. meetings, but systematically demeans people who want to come to this country for good reasons.