Sept. 5, 2010#151; -- Agricultural equipment makers and customers worldwide gathered in Orlando in January to meet, greet, sell and buy at the trade show AG Connect Expo.
About 1,460 international attendees registered for the show, organized by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Nearly 500 of them never made it.
The reason for the absentees: They couldn't obtain a U.S. entry visa in time to attend, most of them told the association afterward. There's no telling how many will attend next year.
"The visa process is very slow and very arbitrary," says Dennis Slater, the association's president. "Either they get denied or it has a cooling effect, and they go elsewhere. We're in a bad economy, and there's a lot of places worldwide where you can buy equipment."
Slater's refrain is increasingly echoed by businesses and trade groups that fear their competitive edge is hurt by the U.S. visa approval process at a time when other countries are eager to woo foreign customers.
U.S. companies say a growing number of foreign business travelers particularly from robust emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil are avoiding coming to the U.S. because they don't want to deal with the cumbersome, time-consuming process.
U.S. embassies got more stringent in approving visa applicants after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the policy hasn't improved since, they say.
The State Department doesn't deny that visa issuance can trip up prospective visitors, but its internal data show that the problem isn't as bad as industries claim, says David Donahue, the department's deputy assistant secretary for visas. Consular officers must carefully weigh security and forgery concerns and the possibility of applicants overstaying their visits and becoming immigrants, he says.
However, he says, staffing at embassies where visa demand is high has been beefed up.
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies events and attendance, says its data show that the U.S. economy lost $290 million in domestic travel spending from the 10 largest trade shows and conferences in the last 12 months because registrants couldn't get visas.
"This is business on steroids, and we're neutering it," says Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association.
The issue is coming to light as international participation for U.S. shows, which had been growing steadily the last 10 years, leveled off amid the latest economic downturn.
The U.S. doesn't require visas from citizens of 36 countries, including Western Europe. But travelers from other countries must apply for a non-immigrant visa and undergo a personal interview.
Getting an interview is often the most difficult hurdle in the process. Approval or rejection is issued within a few days of the interview. Donahue says U.S. embassies aim to schedule interviews within 20 days of the application submission, though they fall short in some busy countries.
The U.S. Travel Association says Brazilians must wait "nearly two months" for an interview, while Chinese applicants wait 70 to 100 days.
The State Department disagrees. As of last week, the average wait time in São Paulo was 38 days, while Rio de Janeiro was running 24 days, Donahue says. Applicants in Beijing and Shanghai wait 31 and 55 days, respectively. Worldwide, the average wait time is 15 days, he says.
Waiting isn't the only problem, businesses say. While the State Department has no specific document requirements other than a standard form, the U.S. government assumes that all applicants are seeking to emigrate to the U.S., Donahue says.
That leaves the burden of proof to the applicant that he plans to return to his country once the short-term visit ends. Proving that often requiring personal bank statements, family history documents, letters of invitation from the U.S. and employer verification can be a "humiliating" experience for many, says Gary Shapiro, CEO of Consumer Electronics Association, which hosts one of the largest trade shows in the country.
Again, the State Department disagrees. Interviewees are "treated with respect," Donahue says. "This is like applying for a driver's license."
The U.S. Travel Association says problems could be eased by expanding the nations from which visitors can come without a visa and interviewing applicants via video instead of in person.