State Department trims Brazilians' visa waits
By Scott Blake
Greater Miami tourism officials want to make it as easy as possible for those in Brazil and other key foreign tourist markets to visit here. And they're making progress.
Although legislation to accomplish that goal was still on the way to being fully approved, the US Department of State has been shifting more resources to Brazil and it is already reducing wait times for Brazilians seeking visa permits to travel to the US.
In addition, the US House of Representatives last week approved a 2012 spending package in which Congress directs the State Department to take necessary steps to reduce visa processing times in Brazil, China, and India, including hiring additional personnel as needed.
The spending package also includes a provision to hire 300 federal Customs and Border Patrol officers at US ports of entry to enhance the processing of international travelers.
Meanwhile, the Washington, DC-based Corporation for Travel Promotion has started its "Brand USA" overseas marketing campaign to increase foreign tourism to the US.
"It's all about jobs, jobs, jobs," said William D. Talbert III, CEO and president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The ultimate goal is to create more jobs in tourism and hospitality, Mr. Talbert said, and the best way to do that is to draw more visitors from South Florida's most lucrative tourist markets, such as Brazil, by making it more convenient for them to travel here.
These efforts by the federal government are "more of an acknowledgement that tourism is important for growing jobs," he added. "Foreign visitors, especially those from Brazil and other places with strong economies, spend more time here and spend more money here, and that supports jobs."
A recent study found that jobs in Miami-Dade County's leisure and hospitality sector pay an average of $25,800 a year.
While that number is relatively low, it is still 33% higher than the national average for leisure and hospitality jobs, according to a report from the Beacon Council, the county's economic development agency.
Bolstered by the economic growth in Brazil, Brazilians have become the premier foreign tourist market for Greater Miami. In 2010, the Miami area drew more than 550,000 Brazilians, who spent about $1.1 billion, according to Mr. Talbert.
If visa wait times are significantly reduced, he said, those Brazilian visitor numbers could increase significantly in a year.
The problem has been that Brazilians and those in other countries without US visa waiver status have had to wait 100 days or more for an interview for a visa document. The State Department has responded to calls for change by shifting more personnel to Brazil or having extended office hours for visa interviews.
A check of a State Department website last week revealed that the changes have already reduced wait times in some major Brazilian cities to between 11 days and 86 days, although those numbers fluctuate from day to day and city to city.
Meanwhile, Mr. Talbert said, currently seven bills before Congress are aimed at reducing foreign travel barriers to the US in order to stimulate the nation's travel economy. One of them includes granting Brazil and other nations visa waiver status.
The bills have yet to be approved, but he said their existence shows that it is emerging as a political concern.
Meanwhile, Greater Miami's tourism sector has continued to create jobs, despite the overall sluggish economy. The number of leisure and hospitality jobs in Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall metropolitan statistical area grew to 110,600 in November, up 2,600 jobs, or 2.4%, from 108,000 a year earlier, state labor statistics show.
Established last year by Congress, the nonprofit Corporation for Travel Promotion is carrying out the first nationally-coordinated international travel marketing program for the US. The program is funded by visa waiver fees paid by foreign travelers, as well as contributions from the private sector.
And local officials are working to ensure Greater Miami benefits from the marketing dollars.
"We will be part of their marketing committee," Mr. Talbert said about the Brand USA program.
With such marketing efforts, he added, Miami's status as the nation's second-largest gateway for foreign visitors behind New York City "stands to grow as much or more" than other US destinations.
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