Long US Visa Processing Blocks Tourism Recovery and Growth

Long visa processing is between millions of dollars for the U.S. travel industry and jobs. While much of the country may return to normal this year, international travel will not be able to rebound to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 due to visa backlogs.

Travel Industry in the United States 

The US economy relies heavily on international travel. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, international visitors to the United States spent $233.5 billion in 2019, injecting nearly $640 million per day into the economy. 

The travel and tourism industry in the United States generated $1.9 trillion in economic output, supporting 9.5 million jobs and accounting for 2.9 percent of GDP in the United States.

International travelers spend more in the United States than in any other country, accounting for 14.5 percent of international travel spending globally.

Why Is the Visa Processing Time Long?

After embassies and immigration offices closed for months due to the pandemic, processing times for visas and work permits skyrocketed, creating a backlog of cases that the immigration agency is still trying to clear.

Long visa wait times in countries that send the largest number of tourists to the United States, such as India and Brazil, hurt the people and the economy. According to the U.S. consulate general in São Paulo, the waiting time for a U.S. visa interview has reached up to 354 days in Brazil.

As of this month, inbound travelers can anticipate waiting 702 days in Guadalajara, Mexico, and 643 days in Bogota, Colombia.

All immigrant visa services at the US Consulate in Mumbai have reopened. Nonimmigrant services at the US Embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai are still limited.

Backlogs at US embassies and consulates are partly caused by the global pandemic and the immigrant visa bans during Trump’s administration.

While the USCIS had announced new plans to improve operational efficiency in processing benefits such as green cards and work permits for visa holders, obtaining a visa through the State Department has become a great hindrance for international tourists and business travelers, foreign workers, and immigrants trying to seek family-based green cards.

Impact of Long Visa Processing Wait Times 

The hospitality industry has also suffered from a lack of international travel, and hotels and other businesses have struggled to find seasonal workers to keep operations running. The State Department is also struggling to recover from recent years of staff attrition. Industry groups, however, believe the US could do more to speed up visa processing by implementing measures such as virtual interviews for applicants.

For critical roles in U.S. companies, managers and specialty occupation workers have also been on a perpetual visa interview wait times. People planning to travel to the United States for conferences or contract negotiations have also been postponed because of the long wait times.

In 1986, in response to a rapidly globalizing world economy, the United States established the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to make business and tourism travel to the United States more accessible for citizens of certain countries.

The VWP now allows citizens of 40 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa from a US consulate abroad.

Eleven of the top twenty inbound markets for the United States are visa waiver countries, meaning business and leisure travelers can obtain expedited travel authorization. However, such waivers have not been granted to Brazil or India.

Is Tourism on the Road to Recovery?

Tourism advocates have recommended an increase in visa waiver designations, which are decided by the State Department in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security. However, they claim that the State Department can take more immediate steps to reduce processing times.

This month, travel industry groups urged the Biden administration to remove a requirement that vaccinated travelers test negative for Covid-19 before flying to the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make any changes to the mandate.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has pressured the State Department to increase hiring, expand the use of visa interview waivers, adopt virtual interview options, and add stateside processing of visa renewals – all of which the group claims will reduce visa backlogs.