U.S. adds 7 countries to Visa Waiver Program

Amid a downturn in global tourism, a new U.S. travel rule is triggering optimism in the industry for more inbound visitors from several countries.

The federal government will expand its Visa Waiver Program Monday to include South Korea and six Eastern European countries — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. It paves the way for the citizens of these countries to enter the USA for up to three months without obtaining a visa.

They join 27 developed countries, including the U.K., France and Japan, that have been granted the privilege. U.S. tourism officials have been vigorously lobbying for expansion in recent years to include other countries as a means to generate more visitors and ease concerns that the USA hasn't been as welcoming following 9/11.

In 2007, about 29 million travelers from overseas — excluding Mexico and Canada — visited the USA, up 10% from 2006, according to the Travel Industry Association. But given the global economic crisis, the number of overseas visitors to the USA is expected to drop 3% in 2009 to 25.5 million from an estimated 26.3 million this year, the TIA says.

Without the program, the rate of decline would have been steeper, says Geoff Freeman, a public affairs executive for TIA. "The Visa Waiver Program is the most critical program for international tourism to the U.S.," he says. "It's valuable on all sides of travel — from business travel to tourism and student travel."

Its proponents say the process of obtaining U.S. tourist visas for foreigners in their home countries can be burdensome and discourages many would-be visitors.

Since 9/11, all foreigners are required to undergo personal interviews. Relieving the burden would spur greater tourism spending in the USA at a time when hotels and airlines are seeing a sudden and dramatic slowdown, Freeman says.

Interest is particularly high in South Korea, where the program has been garnering front-page headlines. In 2007, 806,000 South Koreans visited the USA, ranking seventh-highest among foreign countries.

Korean Air estimates the number of its Korean customers visiting the USA will increase by more than 10% in 2009 despite the weak won.

In anticipation of greater demand, Korean Air will add 5% to 7% more seats for its trans-Pacific flights and increase the frequency of some flights, including Seoul-Washington and Seoul-San Francisco flights.

The Czech Republic, from which more than 45,000 visitors came last year, expects the figure will more than double in 2009, says Daniel Novy of the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C.

András Juhász from the Hungarian Embassy says the number of Hungarian visitors to the USA also will likely increase once the visa requirement is waived. "We had to stand in line and, for some, they had to travel from the countryside to Budapest for the visa interview. Many weren't willing to go through this humiliating process."