Made in America: Visa Process Slows Down Tourism

Recapturing 17 percent of overseas travel would create 1.3 million jobs by 2020.

ByABC News
October 31, 2011, 4:47 PM

Oct. 31, 2011— -- In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the number of foreign overseas tourists travelling the world grew by an astounding 60 million. You would think the numbers would grow in the United States as well, but they haven't. Ten years ago 26 million overseas visitors visited the U.S. In 2010, 26.4 million, according to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group. That's hardly any growth at all.

Take a look at the numbers. The average Chinese tourist who visits America spends $6,243 while they're here, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Visitors from India spend $6,131. Brazilian tourists coming to America spend $4,940.

"I want to go to New York and California, maybe Las Vegas -- the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park," said one man waiting for a visa in Rio de Janiero.

But there is a catch, and it's a big one. There is no guarantee he or any other foreign tourists will get to come and spend their money here.

In fact, last year, tourists from Brazil had to wait up to 145 days just to interview for the required piece of paper.

In China, there are 1.3 billion people and only five places where you can even get an American visa. This year, the wait time has been up to 120 days just to get an interview.

"You're talking about visas simply to visit the U.S., not to stay here," said Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group. "Yes, this is not about people staying here. This is people who come, may spend two weeks, may spend a lot of money, creating American jobs, and then go back to the countries they came from."

Why, with tens of millions of travelers worldwide, have America's numbers stayed the same?

"We don't have the people to process them, and we don't have the facilities and the locations to process them," said Sirkin. "This could all be changed, and this could create literally millions of jobs in the United States."

In New York City, the W Hotel is trying lure Chinese travelers by catering to Chinese culture.

The hotel has entire menus in Mandarin, as well as tea kettles and the customary slippers.

"The U.S. is the number-one outbound destination of choice for Chinese travelers today," said Frits van Paasschen, CEO of Starwood Hotels.

But, because they can't get here, he said, they go to Europe.

All around the world, in Brazil, India and China, the fast-growing middle classes look to travel to the U.S., but only 13 percent actually come here, according to the U.S. Travel Association – some say, because it's so difficult to get a visa. Thirty-eight percent travel to Europe instead because it's easier.

In the last decade, the U.S. lost out on 78 million overseas visitors -- that's $606 billion in spending -- in stores, malls, tourist destinations right here in America. Enough to add nearly half a million jobs every year.

The State Department told ABC News that safety and security comes first, but acknowledged they're working on the problem.

"We don't want anyone to wait, but we believe that most of those who are waiting will be coming," said David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary of state for visas, who added they are sending additional consular officers to both Brazil and China this year to increase processing capacity.

"It takes time to build new facilities, to grow," Donahue said. "This is a rather new phenomenon in China, that this many people want to come to the United States, and we have to address that need, but it takes time to grow to meet the growth in China."

In the meantime, those lines are growing and so, say economists, are the missed opportunities.