Companies criticize U.S. travel visa process

The Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which studies events and attendance, says its data show that the U.S. economy lost $290 million in domestic travel spending from the 10 largest trade shows and conferences in the last 12 months because registrants couldn't get visas.

Agricultural equipment makers and customers worldwide gathered in Orlando in January to meet, greet, sell and buy at the trade show AG Connect Expo. About 1,460 international attendees registered for the show, organized by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Nearly 500 of them never made it. The reason for the absentees: They couldn't obtain a U.S. entry visa in time to attend, most of them told the association afterward. There's no telling how many will attend next year.

U.S. embassies got more stringent in approving visa applicants after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the policy hasn't improved since, they say. The State Department doesn't deny that visa issuance can trip up prospective visitors, but its internal data show that the problem isn't as bad as industries claim, says David Donahue, the department's deputy assistant secretary for visas. Consular officers must carefully weigh security and forgery concerns and the possibility of applicants overstaying their visits and becoming immigrants, he says.

The U.S. doesn't require visas from citizens of 36 countries, including Western Europe. But travelers from other countries must apply for a non-immigrant visa and undergo a personal interview.

Getting an interview is often the most difficult hurdle in the process. Approval or rejection is issued within a few days of the interview. Donahue says U.S. embassies aim to schedule interviews within 20 days of the application submission, though they fall short in some busy countries.

The U.S. Travel Association says problems could be eased by expanding the nations from which visitors can come without a visa and interviewing applicants via video instead of in person.

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