Feb 17, 2023 - News

Mayors across the country call for expedited travel visas

Illustration of a pattern of airplanes.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

More than 40 mayors from cities across the country called on the U.S. State Department this week to speed up the visitor visa process for would-be international travelers.

  • San Francisco Mayor London Breed was among those calling for pandemic-related backlogs to be addressed.

Why it matters: The delays may lead to over 2.5 million people forgoing their trips to the United States in 2023, amounting to some $7 billion in lost revenue for local economies, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

  • Long wait times can also lead to people missing out on important life events, like a graduation or birth of a child.

What they're saying: "These delays are essentially a travel ban — no one is going to wait 1-2 years to interview with a U.S. government official to gain permission to visit the United States," U.S. Travel Association CEO Geoff Freeman told Axios in an email.

  • "Millions of potential visitors will simply choose other destinations — destinations that are effectively competing for their business."

Details: By April, the mayors say they want visa processing to be under 21 days for people from "top countries for inbound travel." And by September, the hope is that interview wait times for 80% of applicants globally is three weeks or less.

  • The mayors also asked the State Department to increase staffing at consulates seeing a high volume of applicants and extend interview waivers for renewal applicants deemed "low risk."

By the numbers: Today, visa interviews in some top markets can take over a year, like in Mexico City, where the current wait time is 633 days.

  • Yes, but: The State Department told USA Today that the current median wait time for an interview is around seven weeks, down from 120 days last summer.

Of note: Travelers from countries like Australia, Japan and many in Europe don't need visas to visit the U.S.

  • But according to the U.S. Travel Association, 43% of international travelers in 2019 came from countries that required visas, leading to $120 billion being spent on U.S. soil.

Be smart: Excessive visa delays are the result of pandemic-related staffing reductions at U.S. consulates along with a surge in global travel once borders were reopened, the U.S. Travel Association told Axios.

State of play: Processing times for certain visas, like those for students and seasonal workers, have come down, which the mayors say gives them hope that the same can be done for travelers.

  • A spokesperson for the State Department told USA Today that it processed 90% of its "pre-pandemic 2019 nonimmigrant visa volume" in its fiscal year of 2022 and plans to complete even more in 2023.

Zoom in: San Francisco had an estimated 1.5 million international travelers in 2022, which was up 163% from the previous year, according to SF Travel.

  • Still, last year's international traveler count was half of the 3 million people that visited before the pandemic in 2019.
  • SF Travel CEO Joe D’Alessandro told Axios in an email that the "long wait times for visas are a serious impediment to our ongoing tourism recovery."

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