Since 9/11, the U.S. government has struggled with the twin goals of reviewing visa applicants for security risks while maintaining the attractiveness of the United States as a premiere destination for business and leisure travel. As the President’s outgoing National Economic Adviser Larry Summers recently commented, improving the climate for travel to the United States may represent the most effective way to grow U.S. exports and create export-related jobs.
The reasons for the relative decline in the U.S. travel market are complex, but clearly the new security dictates are part of the explanation. Requiring personal interviews and biometric collection for nearly all visa applicants has surely increased the security of the visa process that was found so wanting pre-9/11. However, we need to recognize the economic impact of this security: we welcomed 2.4 million fewer overseas visitors in 2009 than in 2000, and the failure to simply keep pace with the growth in international long-haul travel since 2000 has cost our economy an estimated $509 billion in total spending and $32 billion in direct tax receipts.
A principal reason for this lag in visitation is insufficient access to a U.S. consulate. Visa applicants are required to undergo a personal interview at a U.S. consulate as part of the visa application process. However, in large countries like Brazil or India, our consulates are so limited and far apart that this physical distance discourages scores of potential visitors from even applying for a visa. For example, the United States has only four consulates in Brazil, which has a total land area greater than the continental United States. The cost, planning and effort associated with traveling hundreds of miles to the nearest U.S. consulate deter legitimate travelers from attempting to visit the United States. Constructing and staffing new consulates with the requisite security is an expensive and long-term process. This problem can be addressed in part through videoconferencing technology. Expanding access to visa reviews will help put the United States on track to reach these export goals.
Moreover, videoconferencing technology represents a breakthrough in security. Some have doubted that videoconferencing is as secure as a face-to-face interview. As technology continues to evolve, however, videoconferencing is a viable option that will not sacrifice U.S. security efforts. In fact, today’s technology offers superb video quality with the ability to capture and record detailed images not discernible to the naked eye. Interviews by video can be recorded, which provides obvious benefits in security reviews and training for new employees. It may also be possible to involve more highly-trained investigators in the interview process with the expense of deploying government employees overseas. Additionally, the use of encryption technologies can capture documents, fingerprints and other biometric data during the interviews in order to maintain the highest level of security.
Videoconferencing is already regularly in use by the State Department for many other sensitive purposes at every U.S. consulate abroad. Under the Rice-Chertoff Initiative announced in 2006, the Departments of State and Homeland Security recommended testing videoconferencing technology as one potential tool to help increase access to the visa process. However, the State Department has concluded that it needs specific legal direction from Congress to pilot-use videoconferencing technology for visa interviews to move forward. The Senate included legislative language in their FY2011 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill, stating that the Secretary of State may develop and conduct a two-year pilot program for the processing of tourist visas using secure remote videoconferencing technology as a method for conducting visa interviews of applicants. Our ability to physically build our way out of this dilemma is limited, and we need to be more creative in securing the international travel system that is so valuable to our economy and foreign policy.
Hopefully this language will survive the legislative process and bring modern technology to bear on this serious problem.