ORLANDO—U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker says the U.S. is on the path to welcome 100 million international visitors annually by 2021 because of efforts such as expanding the visa waiver program and decreasing visa wait times.
In an interview with USA TODAY at the U.S. Travel Association’s IPW travel industry conference in Orlando, Pritzker outlined the Obama administration’s plan to attract international visitors. It includes increasing the number of countries whose citizens don’t have to get visas, improving the arrival process at 17 U.S. airports, and expanding a program that allows travelers from other countries to go through customs before boarding their flights to the USA.
“We’re trying to improve our positioning because it’s a competitive landscape,” she said.
The administration launched the National Travel and Tourism Strategy in 2012. Last year, there were about 74 million international visitors to the USA, who spent an estimated $222 billion.
Pritzker, whose father co-founded Hyatt Hotels, outlined the administration’s strategy for increasing tourism from other countries. The highlights:
Expanding the visa waiver program. The number of countries whose citizens can enter the USA for business or leisure travel for up to 90 days has grown to 38. The most recent additions include Greece, Taiwan and Chile.
Pritzker says that 59% of international visitors come from those countries.
Decreasing visa waits. The amount of time that visitors from countries that do require visas has decreased, Pritzker says.
“Our wait times in some countries were several months and now, our wait times have been brought down to less than 5 days, which is considered very competitive globally,” she says.
Increasing the number of countries with preclearance. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced its intention to begin negotiations to expand its preclearance program to 10 airports in nine foreign countries.
Preclearance allows visitors to go through immigration and customs by U.S. Customs and Border Protection before boarding a direct flight to the USA.
The countries that could get preclearance are: Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Upgrading 17 airports. The administration is also working on improving the experience when travelers arrive to the USA at 17 airports that account for nearly three-quarters of arrivals in the USA.
The goal, Pritzker says, is “to simplify and streamline the entry process all while not compromising our national security.”
Through a series of public-private partnerships valued at $20 million, 340 additional automated passport control kiosks will be installed to reduce wait times by up to 30%.
Other changes include better signage and a streamlined baggage claim process.
Boosting tourism from China. The administration has focused its efforts on encouraging travel from China, the fourth largest market for inbound tourism.
Pritzker says that extending visa validity for Chinese travelers from one to 10 years has increased demand for visas by citizens of that country by 50%.
The administration is expecting the number of Chinese visitors to more than double to about 5 million a year by 2019.
“You can see there is tremendous growth potential,” she said.
Chris Thompson, president and CEO of Brand USA, says that Chinese visitors spend on average $6,000 a person on each trip to the USA, about 30% more than other international travelers.
Reauthorizing Brand USA, a marketing organization made up of public and private partnerships to promote the USA. President Obama signed a bill into law in December that included federal funding for Brand USA through fiscal 2020.
Brand USA generated more than 2 million incremental international visitors in the last two years, according to a new study by Oxford Economics, a global forecasting firm. Those visitors spent $6.5 billion.
“I think it got off to a bit of a rocky start but now I think jt’s doing a bang-up job,” Pritzker said, “and there’s so much potential when you bring the private sector and public sector together to promote the United States as a destination.”