Brazil's exclusion from visa, investor programs hits Miami's economy
By Robert Grattan
Even while Brazil, Miami's top international trading partner, is driving economic growth through investment in businesses and real estate, many in South Florida worry that US visa policy is preventing this lucrative trade from reaching its full potential.
Brazil is not included in the Visa Waiver Program or the Treaty Investor Program, which are extended to trading partners to facilitate access to the US. As a result, getting a US visa from Brazil can take as long as three months, trade professionals said.
The Visa Waiver Program enables nationals of 36 participating countries — not including Brazil — to travel to the US for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa, according to the US Department of State's website.
"There are no South American countries that have a visa waiver," despite the fact that Brazilian tourists are a major contributor to South Florida's economy, said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Last year, Brazilian visitors spent $1.1 billion in Miami-Dade and became the area's first billion-dollar market, he explained.
"We've been told by professionals in Brazil that if we get the Visa Waiver Program, that $1.1 billion will turn into $2 billion overnight," Mr. Talbert said.
Countries in the Visa Waiver Program include Australia, Germany, Hungary, South Korea, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Brunei.
Program members must meet strict standards to be eligible, including a less than 3% visa rejection rate and compliance with US immigration law.
Getting a visa in Brazil to the US can take as long as 100 days, Mr. Talbert said, and potential visitors might have to drive hundreds of miles to satisfy an in-person interview requirement.
This time-consuming process discourages tourists, he said, which is costly for South Florida.
Brazilians looking to invest in Miami-Dade are also hindered by Brazil's absence from the Treaty Investor Program, said attorney Tim Murphy, who counsels foreign nationals on doing business in the US as a partner at Shutts & Bowen.
"Right now, a wealthy man sitting in [Brazil] who wants to invest $5 million and buy a small dealership can't do it," he said.
With treaty investor membership, Brazilians who "invest a substantial amount of money in a business, can come to the US to manage it, or send someone else to manage it," Mr. Murphy said.
The treaty investor is a less exclusive program and includes countries like China and Iran.
Without the treaty investor, Mr. Murphy noted, it is possible to invest in the US, but investors must have worked as a manager in multi-national corporations for at least one year.
"Of all the Brazilians that come to see me, probably 20% do not come back after I tell them what the facts are," he said. "…It's designed with great prejudice to large corporations."
Increasing access to Brazil's economy would benefit South Florida, agreed Mr. Talbert and Mr. Murphy, although the two offered different ways to do so.
Adding Brazil to the treaty investor would be more beneficial than opening up the visa waiver, Mr. Murphy said.
"People with disposable income they can expend on vacation travel are going to be able to get a visa anyway," he said, "with the caveat that having to go to the consulate is an inconvenience."
Mr. Talbert said he considered the inconvenience to be large.
By adding $1 billion to the area's economy, he said the boost in tourism creates jobs.
"Visit Florida has estimated that every 85 international visitors creates or sustains one American job," he said. "If you look at average length of stay, group size and expenditures, the average Brazilian group that comes to Miami spends $5,000."
Congressional documents currently list Brazil as a "road-map country" for the visa waiver.
With Brazil's growing market and major events headed there, such as the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Mr. Talbert explained, legislators are looking to increase ties with the South American country.
"I'm expecting visa waiver [for Brazil] within the year," he said, citing two House and Senate bills that would modify the program to include Brazil and Chile.
Mr. Murphy pointed out that Brazil's large poor population — 22% of all Brazilians, according to the World Bank — is to make the visa waiver hard to obtain.
Both, however, agree that more must be done to strengthen ties with Brazil.
"This is an important market for Brazilians,"2 Mr. Talbert said. South Florida "is a community that they feel very comfortable in."
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