NEW RULES GOVERNING the granting of entry visas to the United States are starting to impact the meeting industry.

The Fifth World Chinese Life Insurance Congress canceled its August 2004 meeting in Hawaii because of difficulties getting visa approvals. Hawaiian tourism officials expected the meeting to draw more than 3,000 attendees and generate more than $17 million in spending. “It will have an impact on the state,” says Randy Tanaka, director of sales and marketing for the Hawaii Convention Center. He does not expect the convention center to be able to rebook the August dates. “From a facility's standpoint, it is a clear loss,” he says.

The life insurance congress is not the only event Hawaii is losing this year because of visa issues. The first annual Asia Pacific Investment Congress was scheduled to host 500 attendees at the end of April, but organizers postponed it because of concerns that the large contingent from China would not be able to attend.

The immediate problem in these cases is the time it takes to process visa applications. Last year the U.S. Department of State implemented new rules requiring American consular and embassy officials to personally interview millions of visa applicants. This was a sharp break from past practices that has resulted in lengthy delays in the visa approval process.

Some major insurance associations headquartered in the United States say that their international members have not yet been affected by visa challenges. Atlanta-based LOMA, a 1,250-member international association that provides financial services and insurance education and research, has lost “less than one percent of meeting attendance due to visa issues” says spokesperson Meaghan Kenagy. LIMRA International, a Connecticut-based association that provides marketing and distribution to the 850 insurance and financial services companies that comprise its membership, has also been just slightly affected by visa issues. “We have heard from only a few people that they would be unable to attend some of our meetings due to visa issues,” says LIMRA spokesperson Howard Drescher.

Growing Challenges

Nevertheless, travel industry experts predict a growing problem with visa delays, extending to countries through-out Asia, Latin America, and Africa. It is particularly serious in places where potential visitors to the United States may have to travel hundreds of miles in their own country for an interview in order to get a visa. The organizers of the 2004 United Methodist General Conference, held in Pittsburgh from March 27 to April 7, were forced to make emergency efforts to ensure that delegates from Africa and Asia were able to get visas in time to attend the meeting.

“There is a lot of stuff going on — a lot of new rules being created and implemented, without enough attention to resources,” says Edward Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America. “That's why you're getting such long waits for visas.”

In such an environment, Fluhr advises, any meeting planner organizing an international conference or event in the United States should be working many months in advance to ensure that attendees are applying for visas in a timely manner.

A delayed visa is just one potential problem for international meeting attendees, notes Fluhr. The cost of a visa application, for instance, has risen from $65 to $100 in the past year. This fee, required and nonrefundable whether the visa is granted or not, is substantial for applicants from countries like India or China with low per-capita incomes.

The expansion of the US-VISIT (Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology) program could further impact travel to the United States, Fluhr says. That program, launched earlier this year for citizens with visas, will now require visitors from 27 visa-waiver countries — including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan — to be photographed and fingerprinted when entering the United States, effective September 30. The government has extended the deadline by which visitors from visa-waiver countries must possess biometric passports to November 2006.

“Raising fees, requiring more interviews, and requiring digital photographs — combine them all together and people are going to say: ‘I just don't want to deal with it,’” predicts Fluhr. “Looking back five years from now,” he adds, “we will have implemented a security regimen that is efficient and significantly improves our security. It's just going to be a painful process to get there.”

In the meantime, Tanaka and his colleagues in Hawaii are trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of a sizeable loss of convention business. Tanaka said the center has a third meeting from the Asia/Pacific region booked this calendar year — a meeting still going forward at press time. And Tanaka is also hopeful of luring the World Chinese Life Insurance Congress back to Hawaii for its next convention.