U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai"i), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Tourism, Innovation, and Competitiveness held a hearing on the state of U.S. tourism and travel industry today and announced plans to work with the U.S. Department of State on legislation to make it easier for low-risk international travelers to visit the United States, boosting tourism and helping the government achieve its goal of attracting 100 million visitors annually by 2021.
"With an increasing demand for visas from international visitors, we have a great opportunity to grow our tourism industry and our economy," Senator Schatz said. "We need to do everything we can speed up the visa process and make it easier for low-risk travelers to revisit our country. I am committed to working with the State Department on legislation to expand the visa Interview Waiver Program and find ways to strengthen our tourism industry and create jobs."
At the hearing today, Ambassador Michele Bond, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Consular Affairs, announced the State Department's interest in working with Congress on a legislative proposal to expand the existing visa Interview Waiver Program, making it easier for low-risk travelers to visit the United States while maintaining high levels of security. The Interview Waiver Program is a State Department program, which allows certain individuals seeking renewals of previously issued visas to have their applications processed without having to attend visa interviews at U.S. consulates. In FY 2013, the State Department waived more than 380,000 interviews.
John Wagner, Acting Assistant Commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), testified at today's hearing that CBP was close to reaching an agreement to include Japan in the Global Entry program, which will facilitate travel to Hawai"i. Global Entry provides expedited clearance for prescreened, low-risk travelers at U.S. ports of entry. Mr. Wagner also testified that CBP was moving closer to expanding the Preclearance program to Japan. The Preclearance program stations CBP officers in foreign airports, clearing travelers at their point of origin to avoid lengthy processing at busy U.S. airports. This would also allow airports without CBP international facilities, including Kona Airport, to begin accepting international flights. Last year, Japanese tourists made up 18% of Hawai"i's visitors and brought more than $2.5 billion into Hawai"i's economy. CBP currently operates 15 Preclearance locations in six foreign countries.