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December 9, 2015

What's Behind the Visa Waiver Program Fight

A bipartisan measure in the House of Representatives to tighten security restrictions on the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) has drawn support from major U.S. travel industry organizations, but concerns persist that a misstep could harm inbound travel to the United States

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Bloomberg reports that the House measure, which passed 407-19 Tuesday, bars travelers who have visited Iraq and Syria in the past five years from the program. Passport holders from the 38 countries that participate in the program would have to get a visa to enter the U.S. if they had recently visited Iraq or other countries where terrorism is a concern. Additionally, visa waiver program participants would be required to check travelers against Interpol databases for wanted status, as well as links to terrorism or criminal activity. The countries would also have to issue "e-passports" containing biometric information to prevent falsifying passports. 

According to the Washington Post, the House vote could spur efforts to put changes to the program in an omnibus spending package that must be passed by Friday, or else government funding will expire. Lawmakers associated with the bill argue that the new restrictions would help prevent individuals who may have become radicalized in Iraq or Syria, but who hold European passports, from entering the U.S. without a visa. 30 of the 38 countries in the Visa Waiver Program are in Europe

“That’s what this bill is designed to stop,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement to the Post. “We need to strengthen the security of the Visa Waiver Program to keep terrorists from reaching our shores.”

At the same time, other lawmakers are concerned that the restrictions would still leave security gaps. “This bill will do some good, but it’s mostly evadable,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told the Post

Meetings Industry Response

U.S. travel industry organizations have voiced their support for the bill, but many have expressed concerns that some restrictions could spell trouble for inbound U.S. travel -- potentially harming the meetings industry and other economic sectors that rely on international visitor spend. 

The U.S. Travel Association has released a statement supporting the legislation, with U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow calling it a "thoughtful option to allay concerns about the program while preserving many of its economic and security benefits."


At the same time, U.S. Travel called the proposal to require the collection of biometric information from VWP travelers "inefficient, costly and redundant" and warned that such a pre-screening could deter travelers from visiting the U.S. According to U.S. Travel's analysis, if half of VWP program travelers were discouraged from visiting the U.S., it could cost $54.4 billion in direct spending - bad news for industries like meetings and events that are impacted by international visitor spending. One in ten travelers staying away would still cost $5.4 billion in direct spending. 

"We're not saying that Congress should ignore security issues—we're always the ones to say security must come first, because without security there can be no travel," said Dow. "What we're saying is that lawmakers need to be aware of the economic consequences of their policy decisions. We're saying it's possible to pass a package that lays to rest the worries about the integrity of the VWP without the negative economic fallout, and the House—and now, the Senate as well—provides evidence of that."

The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) has also raised concerns that changes to the VWP be sure not to deter travel. In a blog post by GBTA Executive Director and COO Michael W. McCormick published before the passage of the House legislation, McCormick called on policymakers to make sure the program "remains workable," even as they enact reforms. 

"In light of the recent attacks, there’s no question that reasonable steps can and should be taken to further strengthen the program," McCormick said. "But the fact is that the Visa Waiver Program is needed now more than ever."

U.S. airline trade association Airlines for America (A4A) has also voiced support for the reform bill. 

“Air travel and tourism are key drivers of jobs and economic growth, and the Visa Waiver Program is an important tool which enables our government to help facilitate the movement of travelers to the United States, while maintaining the highest levels of security,” said A4A President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio in a written release. “We applaud Rep. Miller, along with Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), for their efforts to ensure the United States continues to play a leading role in working with other countries around the world to strengthen cooperation, improve intelligence sharing and accomplish our shared security goals.”

Keep visiting www.internationalmeetingsreview.com for the latest meetings industry news, trends and research. 

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About the Author: Adam Leposa





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