House Bill Looks to Ease Visa Entry

JOLT Act would establish a premium processing pilot program.

WASHINGTON — Retailers welcomed a bill reintroduced in the House Thursday aimed at increasing tourism by making it easier for foreign travelers to obtain U.S. visas.

Reps. Mike Quigley (D., Ill.) and Joe Heck (R., Nev.) reintroduced the Jobs Originated Through Launching Act in the House. The bill would establish a “premium processing” pilot project of traveling visas at the State Department to expedite applications; increase the amount of time Canadian visitors can stay in the U.S. to 240 days from 180 days, under certain criteria; require the State Department to make available visa appointment times during low peak periods; expedite visa processing, and establish a two-year pilot program at State that would allow officials to conduct visa interviews through secure videoconferencing.

“With the average international tourist spending well over $4,000 shopping in our stores, staying at our hotels and eating at our restaurants, efforts aimed at encouraging more foreign travel is a simple way to spur economic growth and job creation,” said Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer at the National Retail Federation. “By expanding the Visa Waiver Program to cover more citizens from emerging economies and markets like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Israel and Poland, and reforming our antiquated visa review and approval processes, the JOLT Act will work to entice more foreign travelers and shoppers to our shores. The Obama Administration has made great strides in reducing visa wait times over the past year but more can be done to tap into the $100 billion international tourism and travel market.”

President Obama signed an executive order in January 2012 seeking to dramatically reduce visa processing delays, increase tourism and create jobs in the U.S.

Major retailers and retail trade associations welcomed the move, which came after aggressive lobbying of the administration to ease visa rules so tourists can more easily visit the U.S. and spend their money on luxury goods and fashion items here. Delays in visa processing, especially in China and Brazil, had given an advantage to Europe as a destination for foreign travel. Obama charged the State Department and Department of Homeland Security with increasing visa processing capacity for tourists from China and Brazil by 40 percent in 2012 and ensuring that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receiving their applications.

An interagency task force released a report in May under “the national tourism and travel strategy” that established a broad goal of increasing the number of international visitors to the U.S. from a record 62 million in 2011 to 100 million by 2021. The task force estimated in the report that these visitors would spend $250 billion annually.