Travel industry wants U.S. visa system updated
By Gita Sitaramiah
Updated: 05/20/2011 10:08:24 PM CDT

When Tim Murray has a table of foreign tourists dining at his Murray's Steakhouse in Minneapolis, he sees dollar signs.

These tourists often splurge on pricey bottles of wine and that extra appetizer. "We're always happy to see them," Murray said during a news conference Friday at the Mall of America about speeding up the visa process.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that the country needs to make it easier for foreign tourists to get visas to boost the declining American share of international travel and create more jobs.

She said the long visa process turns off some potential visitors. "We've looked at how we can keep our security priorities in place, which is incredibly important, but speed up this process," said Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate panel that oversees the tourism industry.

She and Murray were joined at the news conference by Hubert Joly, chief executive of the Minnetonka-based Carlson hospitality company; John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota; and Bob Ryan, president of resort developer Odyssey Development of Two Harbors.

Tourism is the fifth largest industry in Minnesota, generating $11 billion in annual sales and providing nearly 11 percent of the state's total private-sector employment. International visitors are especially important because they spend an average of $4,000 each during their stay in the U.S., she said.

However, during the past decade, the U.S. share of the international travel market declined more than 16 percent.
The U.S. share went from 7.5 percent in 2000 to 6.3 percent in 2010. The loss of one percentage point costs the U.S. about 161,000 jobs.

The six northern Minnesota resorts managed by Odyssey Development could see the 3 percent to 4 percent of its business made up of international visitors triple in five years if the visa process is streamlined, Ryan said.

Klobuchar advocates these U.S. Travel Association recommendations:

- Expanding the visa waiver program so citizens of more countries may visit the U.S.

- Aligning State Department resources with market demands by reassigning some consular services to big countries with increasing numbers of international travelers.

- Cutting the wait for a visa interview to 10 days or less.

- Improving the State Department's measurement of the visa process to help determine how well things are working and where to allocate resources.