In a speech at Disney World’s Cinderella Castle earlier this year, President Obama declared that “America is open for business.” For many, however, his declaration was little more than empty words. As a citizen of Brazil living here in Washington, D.C., I have experienced the tremendous hurdles that visitors to the United States must overcome.
My hometown, Belo Horizonte, is the third largest metropolitan area in the country but does not have an American consulate. Therefore, in order to obtain a U.S. visa, residents of Belo Horizonte have to travel to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, or Brasilia to obtain a visa.
Under current U.S. law, all individuals who wish to obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. must be interviewed in person at a consulate office. The closest consulate to Belo Horizonte is in Rio, so that is where I scheduled my interview. The journey required a five-hour trip by bus, a night in a hotel, and one day of lost wages, not to mention paying the courier cost for the consulate to return my passport, meals, and local transportation—all on top of the U.S. government’s $140 application fee. By my estimate, these expenses could easily total the equivalent of a one-month salary at Brazilian minimum wage, or around $300. Then comes the cost of the trip itself.
The interview requirement, first implemented in the aftermath of 9/11, is due for a review. The current system places a huge burden on the future tourist and creates disincentives to international travel while stretching consular resources and adding little value in terms of U.S. security.
The Heritage Foundation has long been a proponent of reforming these programs in order to create the right incentives. As Heritage’s James Carafano puts it:
For starters, mandatory interviews for every visa applicant should be eliminated. Instead, the State Department should be allowed to adopt a risk-based approach. Interview requirements should be focused on specific countries, classes of travelers, and suspect individuals that represent a terrorist or criminal threat or where there is likelihood of abusing or overstaying visa privileges.
The visa system should serve tourism as well as security needs. As it stands now, American policy toward Brazil severely disincentivizes tourism. According to congressional findings, international travel to America supports almost 2 million local jobs in an industry that is expected to double over the next decade. Nonetheless, between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. has lost about 78 million visitors who could have spent $606 billion locally.
Brazilian tourists buy goods and services in the U.S. in part to avoid the burdensome taxation imposed by Brasilia on imports. That is why Brazilians, even in smaller numbers, manage to outspend Canadians and Britons while visiting New York City, spending up to $1.63 billion in the city alone. Ultimately, the Brazilian government has made it cheaper to fly abroad than to import. Yet the American government is failing to welcome Brazilians with anything close to open arms. In the end, both Americans and Brazilians are worse off because of their burdensome policies.
Reforming the visa system can help bring back the competitive advantage that America once had in air travel and tourism. So what is America waiting for?