Agustina Ocampo is the kind of foreign traveler businesses salivate over.
The 22-year-old Argentine recently dropped more than $5,000 on food, hotels and clothes in Las Vegas during a trip that also took her to Seattle’s Space Needle, Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo. But she doubts she will return soon.
“It is a little bit of a headache,” said Ocampo, a student who waited months to find out whether her tourist visa application would be approved.
More than a decade after the federal government strengthened travel requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, foreign visitors say getting a temporary visa remains a daunting and sometimes insurmountable hurdle.
The tourism industry hopes to change that with a campaign to persuade Congress to overhaul the State Department’s tourist visa application process.
“After 9/11, we were all shaken and there was a real concern for security, and I still think that concern exists,” said Jim Evans, a former hotel chain CEO heading a national effort to promote foreign travel to the U.S.
At the same time, he said, the U.S. needs “to be more cognizant of the importance of every single traveler.”
Tourism leaders said the decline in foreign visitors over the past decade is costing American businesses and workers $859 billion in untapped revenue and at least half a million potential jobs at a time when the slowly recovering economy needs both.
In the U.S., Florida ranks second among all states in international visitation, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm. Last year, Florida saw some 11.1 million international visitors from more than 140 countries, who spent $10.6 billion.
In Southwest Florida, international visitation remains strong, but it could get even stronger if temporary visas were easier to get, said Collier County’s tourism consultant Walter Klages, with Research Data Services Inc. in Tampa.
“There is absolutely no question that this visa issue is a deterrent,” he said, adding that he hears complaints about it from international visitors in his surveys.
It’s hard to estimate how many international visitors the region might be losing because of the difficulty in getting tourist visas, Klages said. However, he said, making it easier would give the region another “competitive advantage.”
The return rate is strong for international tourists, making it even more important to get them here the first time, he said.
“They just really like our beaches,” Klages said. “They like the food. They like the accommodations. To them, our destination is a quality place and they want to come back.”
Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director, said European visitation remains strong in Southwest Florida and that’s helped by the fact that most European countries are included in a visa waiver program, meaning their residents are able to come into the U.S. with their passports.
In the third quarter alone, Collier County had nearly 50,000 visitors from Europe, up more than 20 percent from a year ago, according to a report by Klages.
Loosening up on the visa restrictions is likely to benefit cities like Miami and Orlando the most, Wert said.
As Collier County looks to attract more visitors from other international destinations, such as Brazil, the visa issue will have a greater impact, he said. He sees an opportunity to draw more Brazilians and other Latin American visitors from Miami.
While the State Department has beefed up tourist services in recent years, reducing wait times significantly for would-be visitors will likely be a challenge as officials try to balance terrorist threats and illegal immigration with tight budgets that limit hiring.
“Security is job one for us,” said Edward Ramotowski, managing director of the department’s visa services.
That said, the agency announced earlier this month that it would increase its staff in Brazil and China to speed up the process after seeing huge surges in visa applications from both countries during the 2011 fiscal year.
Nearly 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2001, compared with fewer than 6.5 million in 2010. The number of visa applicants also dropped sharply after 2001. Those combined forces pushed the U.S. share of global travelers down to 12 percent last year, from 17 percent before 2001.
The proposed immigration overhaul has largely been driven by the U.S. Travel Association, the tourism industry’s lobbying giant, and has been endorsed by business titans such as the National Retail Federation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing the proposed changes through six bills in the House and Senate.
Geoff Freeman, the travel association’s chief operating officer, said the State Department should be required to keep visa interview wait times at a maximum of 10 days.
“Every day a person is waiting for that interview is a day a person cannot be here supporting the American economy,” he said.
For most foreigners, taking a last-minute business or leisure trip to U.S. travel hubs would be nearly impossible. The average wait time for a visa interview in Rio de Janeiro, for example, was 87 days, according to the State Department.
The vast majority of visitors enter through the country’s visa waiver program, which allows travelers from 36 nations with good relationships with the U.S. to temporarily visit without a visa. Travel proponents want to add nations whose residents are unlikely to illegally move to the U.S., including Argentina, Brazil, Poland and Taiwan.
Tourists from the rest of the world, including India, China, Mexico and other nations with affluent travelers looking to use their passports, must obtain a nonimmigrant visa. The process can be expensive and time-consuming.
People living far from a visa processing center must arrange travel to the interview location, not knowing whether they will be approved.
Tourism proponents want the department to embrace videoconferencing as a way to interview more people quickly. In-person interviews weren’t the norm before 9/11, when consular officials had the authority to approve travelers based on an application alone.
The State Department has made moves to boost its tourist services in recent years, transferring employees from underworked offices to bustling embassies and consular posts.
Other proposed changes include granting more multi-entry visas and charging premium fees to tourists who want a visa right away, similar to the premium passport fee charged to Americans with last-minute passport requests. The tourism industry also wants more visa processing officers and to allow travelers to submit applications in their native language.
“We can’t afford to treat them in a way that gives them an impression that maybe they aren’t welcome,” said Rolf Lundberg, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top lobbyist.