The travel and tourism industry has a presence in every Congressional district in the country. From rural counties in the Midwest to the lights of the Las Vegas strip, travel and tourism accounts for over 14 million jobs and more than $2 trillion in economic activity. Travel is truly one of the major engines of our economy. Yet an outdated, slow, bureaucratic visa processing system is preventing even more international travelers and tourists from visiting the United States and therefore holding back our economic recovery. I’ve joined with Congressman Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Chicago, to introduce bipartisan legislation—the Jobs Originating through Launching Travel or JOLT Act—that would improve our economy, add jobs, and create economic growth by boosting international travel to the United States at no cost to hard-working taxpayers.
Between the years 2000 and 2010, the global long-haul travel market grew by 40 percent. However, the U.S. share of the market fell from 17 to 12 percent during that same time period, largely due to our outdated, inefficient tourist visa application process. In some cases, Chinese business travelers are forced to travel for days just to have their in-person visa application interview. The rest of the application and approval process can be just as time consuming. Instead of jumping through America’s bureaucratic hoops, many leisure and business travelers are taking their business elsewhere—to Western Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Just as American workers must compete in an increasingly advanced global economy, so must our country compete for international travelers and tourists. The JOLT Act will make the United States more competitive with our foreign competitors and be an effective, long-term solution to speeding up our economic recovery.
The JOLT Act accomplishes those objectives by doing three main things. First, it improves the visa processing system by requiring the State Department to develop a premium processing program to expedite approval of nonimmigrant visas to the United States. Under the premium processing provision, the traveler’s application for a visa will be reviewed utilizing the existing approval criteria but on an expedited basis, unless compelling security concerns exist. The JOLT Act gives the State Department the authority to charge an additional fee to cover the administrative costs of expedited processing. This provision would accelerate access to American tourist destinations for travelers from countries like Brazil, India, and China who are willing to pay an additional fee in exchange for expedited processing. Additionally, the JOLT Act sets the goal that 90 percent of all visa interviews be conducted within 10 business days of requesting an appointment. A commitment to faster processing times will give international business travelers and tourists alike the certainty they need when planning a trip, thus ensuring increased and continued demand for travel to the United States.
Next, it expands and modernizes the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP allows citizens of friendly countries with sophisticated security screening of their own to avoid many of the delays and hassles commonly associated with admittance to the United States. The JOLT Act does not guarantee a country’s right to enter the VWP, rather it updates the eligibility criteria while maintaining critical national security protections. Expanding the VWP will provide an immediate economic impact, as evidenced by the results of adding South Korea as a visa waiver country. According to the U.S. Travel Association, South Korean spending in the United States tripled in the first year after being added. Further, Chile, which was just added to the VWP in February, sent visitors to the United States who spent more than $5,000 per trip in 2012. That injection of capital fuels growth across all sectors of our economy.
Finally, the JOLT Act expands upon the successful Global Entry Program. At our busiest points of entry, arriving travelers may have to wait up to four hours to clear Customs. Anyone who has ever waited for extended periods of time to clear Customs during international travel knows how frustrating and discouraging the experience can be. In fact, according to a U.S. Travel Association report, the deterrent caused by those slow wait times costs the United States 2.7 million visitors per year, representing billions of dollars in lost economic impact. The JOLT Act encourages the expansion of both the domestic and international Global Entry Program so that trusted travelers can bypass long lines and start their time in the United States with a positive experience. This would allow Customs and Border Control personnel to focus their resources on unknown individuals, which will improve Homeland Security at our most popular airports.
The JOLT Act takes an effective, long-term approach to building a healthy economy and creating good-paying jobs all over the country. By improving visa processing, expanding the Visa Waiver Program, and building off of the success of the Global Entry Program, the JOLT Act makes it easier for more international business travelers and tourists to get to the United States. That ease of travel will increase U.S. competitiveness in the global travel market.
Passing this bill will not only boost industries directly linked to travel and tourism—like the hotel and lodging industry—but it will also create increased economic opportunities for indirect industries. That combination of direct and indirect growth will create a more sustainable, healthy economy. Let’s pass this job-creating bill to give our national and local economies a JOLT.
Congressman Joe Heck represents Nevada’s Third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.