WASHINGTON — The travel industry is calling wait times for visitors to obtain U.S. visas, which have swollen from an average of 17 days in March 2020 to 247 days this summer, “shameful” and an obstacle to full travel recovery.
Concerns were raised at the US Travel Association’s Future of Travel Mobility conference here last month, where panelists denounced waits of more than 500 days in some markets just to get an interview for a visa.
Every day a visitor waits “is a day they might decide to go somewhere else,” said William Hornbuckle, CEO of MGM Resorts, citing wait times in Mexico of up to 556 days. “People don’t come if they have to wait 556 days.
“There is an urgent need to increase staffing levels in consulates, develop virtual visa processing and hold the State Department accountable to reduce processing times,” Hornbuckle said.
US Travel’s newly appointed CEO Geoff Freeman said reducing visa wait times is a top priority for US Travel.
“The wait times for visas right now, to put it bluntly, are disgraceful,” he said. For “people who don’t want to do anything but come here, spend their money, and go home with a better impression of America, there’s absolutely no excuse for making them wait until they do .”
A July report by the Cato Institute cited an “apocalypse of wait times” for tourist and business travelers averaging 247 days, up from 17 days prior to March 2020.
“This is a staggering eight-month wait to visit the United States for a period of no more than 90 days and typically much less,” the report’s author wrote, citing figures showing that in July more than half of consulates had planned Interviews with tourists and business travelers at least six months in advance, and 27% planned a year or more in advance.
Effects on incoming groups
The National Tour Association (NTA) also said tackling extreme visa wait times is among its top priorities. Catherine Prather, President of the NTA, encourages members to contact their representatives on this matter.
“What many people may not understand is that while vacation travel has recovered and even exceeded 2019 levels, the package travel recovery has lagged,” Prather said. “And many of our international inbound visitors experience the United States as part of a package or a group.”
Prather learns firsthand how visa wait times prevent travel: At least four tour operators who were scheduled to attend the NTA’s Travel Exchange conference in November are unable to get appointments for Visa interviews in time.
“It’s a loss for them, for our U.S. businesses, for our economy, and for the travelers who would have been given the opportunity to explore all that we have to offer,” she said.
Prather recently met with State Department officials to discuss what is being done. “I know they understand our pain points,” she said, but she added that the goal she was given of being fully staffed by the end of 2023 wasn’t soon enough.
Travel agents who book international travelers on domestic trips are also affected. Craig Hsu, vice president of Travel Design USA, which specializes in Asia, decided to shut down his business of sourcing visas for clients coming to the US because it was taking a long time to process.
“We made a strategic decision that it’s probably better for our business model not to do that at the moment,” he said. “We had to call and call and be on hold and it just took too much time. With the answer we got, we weighed it up and decided it wasn’t worth it.”
Why are the waiting times so long?
As with many travel slowdowns and disruptions, Covid is at least partly to blame.
A State Department official said the pandemic has caused a “profound reduction” in its visa-processing capacity.
“Many of our embassies and consulates were only able to provide emergency services at times,” the official said. “Some of our embassies and consulates are still facing Covid-19 related restrictions and many continue to face staffing challenges that began during the pandemic.”
Freeman acknowledged that embassies worldwide face the same staffing issues as companies at home, but added that these issues “cannot become an excuse.”
“Everyone in the industry suffers from a staffing problem,” he said. “But guess what? These hotels are more than 90% occupied. Look at the airlines, look elsewhere. You have to find a way to make it work. Labor shortages should not be an excuse. For these exponential wait times worse than ever, find the solution.”
Freeman said US Travel has long promoted the use of video conferencing to conduct Visa interviews and has for years heard “every excuse in the book” for why it can’t work.
“Our entire globe has switched to video conferencing during the pandemic. And it worked,” he said.
He pointed to a time during the Obama administration when waiting times in China and Brazil had increased to over 100 days.
The travel industry has helped persuade the administration to take the necessary steps to reduce wait times and the State Department has made this a priority, he said.
“We need the same kind of leadership in the State Department today,” he said. “We need a clear message from the White House that this is unacceptable. That this is an area that urgently needs attention.”
State Department: Things are getting better
According to the Foreign Ministry official, the situation is improving.
“We are reducing appointment wait times in all visa classes as quickly as possible, worldwide,” the official said. “Indeed, visa processing is recovering faster than forecast after a near-total shutdown and resource freeze during the pandemic.
“The waiting time for a routine visa appointment at half of our overseas posts is less than four months, and at some posts it is far shorter,” the official said, adding that such visas are 80% “pre-pandemic” levels “growing steadily.”