Visa approval delays slow international tourism to LA

Los Angeles was one of the nation’s hottest tourist destinations before the pandemic struck, reporting a record 51 million domestic and international visitors, who spent $25 billion on hotel stays, meals, tour buses and souvenirs.

With most pandemic travel restrictions gone, the nation’s tourism leaders say delays by the federal government in approving tourist visas are now robbing LA and other US tourist destinations of millions of visitors and billions of dollars in tourism spending.

“Outrageous wait times send a message to travelers that the United States is closed for business,” Geoff Freeman, chief executive of the US Travel Assn., the nation’s travel trade group, said Thursday.

The US Travel Assn. released a study Thursday, estimating that in 2023, the US is projected to lose $11.6 billion in tourism spending because 6.6 million international travelers will be unable to get visitor visas to travel to the US in a timely manner. Wait times of 400 days and longer to get an interview for a visitor’s visa have deterred potential tourists primarily from Brazil, India and Mexico, according to the study.

Instead of visiting the US, most of those travelers would probably choose another vacation destination if visa wait times exceeded a year, the survey of nearly 2,500 potential tourists from Brazil, India and Mexico determined.

Adam Burke, chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, agreed that longer waits for visa interviews are keeping international tourists from visiting the region, but he commended federal officials for trying to address the problem.

“We know there is tremendous pent up demand for travel to the US, which is being hindered by these delayed visa wait times,” Burke said in a statement.

The tourism and convention board is forecasting 5.3 million international visitors for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2023, a 58% increase over the prior year.

The US Department of State, which oversees approval of visas for travelers from certain countries, has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many embassies and consulates “continue to face staffing challenges that began during the pandemic,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement.

The department has bolstered staffing levels, partly by hiring diplomats’ family members, to cut the wait times for visa interviews, the agency said.

“Visa processing is rebounding faster than projected, after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the pandemic,” the statement said.

International visitors spent $13.7 billion in the US in August, according to the US Department of Commerce, up from $6.8 billion in 2021 but less than the $19.5 billion spent in 2019.

In Los Angeles, international visitors have accounted for less than 10% of all tourists but generated more than their share of spending because they tend to stay longer and buy more meals, drinks and souvenirs than domestic visitors. Before the pandemic, the number of visitors from China was growing dramatically, prompting several shopping centers in Los Angeles to hire Mandarin-speaking translators to accommodate the tourists.

The US Department of Commerce announced plans in June to launch a five-year plan to attract 90 million international visitors, who would spend an estimated $279 billion annually by 2027.

When asked during a news conference about the long waits to get visa interviews, Grant Harris, the assistant secretary of commerce for industry and analysis, put part of the blame for the delays on the pandemic and said his department was working to reduce the visa wait times.

“This is going to be something that we want to continue to work on so that we are facilitating travel to and within the United States,” he said.

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