WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Chair of the Senate Tourism Caucus, today highlighted the importance of international tourism to local economies in Minnesota during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on promoting international travel to the United States. Klobuchar introduced bipartisan legislation yesterday that builds on her efforts to help alleviate the long and burdensome process for international travelers to receive U.S. visas. The Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act would allow travelers to expedite the processing of business and tourist visas, speed up the time it takes to receive a visa interview, encourage the State Department to allow multiple-entry visas for qualified Chinese tourists, and allow longer visits to the United States for some Canadian tourists. During the hearing, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue testified in support of the bill and underscored the positive impact international tourism has on local businesses.

Last year, Klobuchar introduced bipartisan legislation to allow the State Department the flexibility to streamline and expand their visa processing services without compromising national security. In addition to co-chairing the Senate Tourism Caucus, Klobuchar chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the U.S. tourism industry.

“Tourism is about so much more than just hospitality. It’s about jobs and better opportunities for American businesses—from hotels and restaurants to retail shops and recreation areas,” Klobuchar said.“My legislation will help cut through the red tape that has been limiting international tourism to the United States and help our businesses grow and thrive.”

International tourism plays an important role in creating U.S. jobs and boosting local economies.  In Minnesota, tourism is the fifth largest industry in the state, generating $11 billion in annual sales and providing nearly 11% of total private sector employment. In 2010, each overseas visitor to the United States spent an average of $4,000 during their stay and total international travel spending supported 1.1 million American jobs. However, a major obstacle for U.S. tourism growth is the extraordinarily long time some foreign visitors have to wait to receive a U.S. tourist visa.

Last year, Klobuchar and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced bipartisan legislation, the International Tourism Facilitation Act, which would help alleviate excessively long wait times for international travelers to receive U.S. visas by allowing the State Department the flexibility to streamline and expand their processing services without compromising the security of U.S. borders or citizens. Key provisions and goals from the bill were included in the President’s Executive Order on tourism in January.

The JOLT Act would build on Klobuchar’s efforts to streamline the visa process for international travelers to the United States. The legislation would:

Allow international travelers to expedite the processing of business or tourist visas.Just as the State Department charges an extra fee to expedite the processing of a U.S. passport, so too should it charge an extra fee to expedite the processing of a nonimmigrant visa. The bill requires the Secretary of State to develop “premium processing” for B-1 and B-2 visas (tourist and business travel visas).   Under premium processing, unless compelling security concerns exist, a visa will be issued within 3 business days from the date a visa is requested.

Speed up visa interview appointments.The legislation sets standards for visa processing saying that visa interviews should be conducted within 15 days of requesting an appointment. One year after enactment, visa interviews should be conducted within 10 days of requesting an appointment.

Expand the visa validity period for Chinese travelers.Currently,Chinese nationals must apply for new U.S. visas every year, while travelers from other countries can receive up to 10-year, multiple entry visas. A one-year visa expiration is disruptive and expensive not only for Chinese visa applicants, but also for American businesses and universities.  If Chinese travelers want to take an annual trip to the United States, and do not live in a city where a U.S. consulate is located, they must incur hundreds or thousands of dollars in expenses (and take time off from their work or studies) to complete the mandatory face-to face interview. This bill encourages the State Department to issue Chinese nationals longer visas than the current one-year limit.

Encourage Canadian tourism to the United States.Under current law, without a visa, Canadian citizens are not permitted to remain in the United States for longer than 180 days. Many Canadians would remain in the United States for a longer period of time if they had a legal ability to do so. In addition, Canadians who currently return to Canada after 180 days are unable to take day-trips across the border to northern-border-states in America. The bill allows Canadians who are: (1) over age 50; (2) who can show that they own a residence in the United States or have purchased rental or hotel accommodations in the United States for the duration of their stay; and (3) are not otherwise inadmissible – to stay at least 240 days per year.

Provide incentives for international travelers to visit the United States during low peak seasons. One of the greatest contributing factors to high visa demand is the summer travel season. Given that visa interview wait times typically lengthen during the summer months, this bill permits the State Department to lower visa application fees during off-peak seasons to give travelers the incentive to apply for visas when demand is lower.  The overall increase in visa application volume is estimated to make up for lower per-application fees.  By increasing incentives and tiered peak and off-peak fees, the State Department can begin to spread demand across all four seasons and make visa demand more manageable overall.