Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association said the first decade of the 21st century was the "lost decade," when international travel grew exponentially but visitor arrivals to the U.S. remained relatively flat. Shutting down the visa waiver program in in the wake of terrorist attacks would again halt growth just as numbers begin to show it's working.
As some members of Congress push to overhaul the visa waiver program because of security concerns, the U.S. Travel Association insists it’s “defending” the 20 million member program and $54 billion in visitor spending it helps generate.
“We are defending this program, because there are many uninformed folks attacking this program,” said Roger Dow, CEO of U.S. Travel, speaking during the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Dallas, Texas on Wednesday.
Dow feels the Obama Administration has been one of the most tourism-friendly White House’s in U.S. history. He thinks a shutdown of the program would “effectively end international travel as we know it.”
It would also undo much of what Obama and his cabinet have accomplished, such as increasing the number of countries in the program to 38 and setting a goal of 100 million international visitors by 2021, Dow said.
“Many of these detractors wrongly claim it allows terrorists to ‘slip undetected into our country’ if they are passport-holders of certain EU countries, including France and Belgium. This is far from the truth. I often say that the visa waiver program is one of the best programs with one of the worst names. Far from ‘waiving’ the screening measures that come with a standard visa application, the visa waiver program in fact subjects all participants to incredibly rigorous security standards.”
Dow said 52 percent of international visitors to the U.S. in 2015 visited through the program and generated $170 billion for the U.S. economy. More than 14 million first-time visitors are expected to visit the U.S. through the program by 2020.
“Whoever assumes the presidency in 2017 will likely be addressing the current debate around the visa waiver program,” said Dow. “There’s not a lot of understanding for what it really means. President Obama didn’t understand as much about the travel industry when he first got into office. Whomever is elected, we want them to understand the power and effect of travel and tourism. We haven’t met with any of the 2016 presidential candidates yet and we’ll wait until we have two candidates [running in the general election] until we really spend some time talking with them.”
Strengthening the program falls on U.S. citizens, too, said Dow. More Americans should join the Global Entry program to help free up customs lines at airports when they return from trips abroad so customs officers can ocus on international visitors, he said.
“I’ve said before that the Department of Homeland Security’s job of apprehending the tiny minority of travelers who pose any risk to the U.S. is like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Dow. “Global Entry, and trusted traveler programs like it, effectively shrink the haystack by ruling out legitimate travelers. This frees up Customs and Border Protection resources and personnel to focus on unknown travelers … As with the visa waiver program, all Global Entry travelers are pre-screened, and provide biometric and biographic information that ensures thorough background checks.”
Dow also said increasing the number of pre-clearance locations from the current 15 “would allow international travelers to clear customs at foreign ports before entry into the U.S.,” and this would free “Customs and Border Protection resources and ensures a more streamlined, expedient U.S. entry process.”
Photo credit: Roger Dow (left), CEO of U.S. Travel Association, and Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, speaking during the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Dallas, Texas on April 6, 2016. Dan Peltier / Skift