By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The complicated U.S. visa system hurts tourism and must be reformed if the United States wants to attract lucrative tourism from countries like China, India and Brazil, travel industry officials said on Thursday.
The U.S. Travel Association announced a plan to help reform the visa process which it said could create 1.3 million U.S. jobs and add $859 billion to the U.S. economy by 2020 through increased overseas tourism.
"The challenge we have is the unnecessary, burdensome U.S. visa system," said USTA president Roger Dow. "It's really self-imposed barriers that we put on ourselves as a country that have caused us to lose international travel and that have stymied international growth."
Travelers have criticized the United States for long waits to get a visa and for a lack of access in some countries to U.S. consular offices. Some potential tourists have to travel across their country just for an interview for a visa.
Figures released by USTA show that while travel is the largest U.S. industry export sector, the United States has failed to keep pace with other parts of the world -- such as Western Europe -- as a travel destination in the past decade.
Looking specifically at growing economies like China, India and Brazil, global long-haul travel grew 140 percent from 2000 to 2010 and is projected to double again over the next decade.
But only a fraction of that travel -- and the billions of dollars in revenue it creates -- went to the United States.
In 2010 more than half the Brazilians travelling overseas went to Europe while 29 percent went to the United States. Nearly three times as many Chinese -- who spend the most on average while overseas -- chose Europe over the United States.
Top reasons for not visiting the United States were the visa process and strict security measures, the association said, referring to 2010 travellers' surveys.
The U.S. visa process from beginning to end can take as long as 145 days in Brazil and 120 days in China, a USTA report said. In contrast, Britain takes an average of 12 days to process visas in Brazil and 11 days in China.
U.S. 'DREAM DESTINATION'
While the United States is the most frequently cited "dream destination" for Chinese tourists, France had 18 percent more Chinese visitors last year, a USTA report said. It said France's visa application process is more efficient.
"These are some of the fastest growing economies in the world," said Dow. "Shouldn't we be getting those people coming to the United States?"
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who chairs a subcommittee focused on export promotion and competitiveness, said the travel industry was important to help President Barack Obama meet his stated goal of doubling exports by 2014.
"We see it as part of our economic recovery. I see this as a way to get jobs in our country," Klobuchar said.
"Since 9/11 we have lost 20 percent of the international tourism market," she said. "Obviously after 9/11 there were changes that had to be made to our security measures. Now we've made those changes and we have to look at how can we make this more efficient, still keeping the security in place."
Klobuchar supported the recommendations of the U.S. Travel Association report which urged the State Department to hire more consular officers and reduce visa interview wait times to 10 days or less. It also proposed expanding the number of countries in the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 36 nations to travel for up to 90 days without a visa.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)