Over the past several days and weeks, I have heard a great deal of talk about how difficult it can be for foreign visitors to come to the United States. Visas are often difficult to get. Understaffed Customs and Border Protection facilities mean long waits and result in some people deciding to go elsewhere. I have seen it when international airport meetings are scheduled in the United States; many airport executives from around the world do not really want to come here because it can be difficult.
One article I saw recently spoke about how much international visitors spend when they are here. A vacationer from Japan or China spends several times what a domestic U.S. vacationer will spend, for example. The implication of the article – we need to do a better job of importing SHOPPERS. Every dollar they spend goes to the plus side of the trade balance ledger. The spending of an international visitor is an EXPORT, essentially.
Foreign carriers at JFK.
I have had several discussions with our members about this; it is a growing issue. The large international gateways are frustrated because staffing and resource constraints mean longer wait times. Smaller markets that have the ability to attract international service are often frustrated because CBP will not staff their facilities so they lose the service. The difficulty in getting a visa means it is harder to attract service from countries such as China, India and Brazil – rapidly growing countries with HUGE middle class populations. Strong allies like Poland can’t get into the visa waiver program. A lot of this does not make any sense.
We have more than 100 open skies agreements with countries all over the world. Open skies, to most people, means that any flight that can sustain itself economically can operate between the two countries. And with today’s aircraft equipment and airport facilities, it means many more cities can serve as international gateways, in a sense. That is the theory…
….BUT in reality, the skies are only as open as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says they are. If they do not have the staff, or if they decide they are unable to staff a flight for whatever reason, the skies become closed. Totally. This is not right, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
And, by the way, I recently saw a study conducted at one airport, a smaller one, that showed the amount paid by travelers in government fees alone (this is not counting any impact from their shopping or buying) dwarfs the amount it costs to staff the extra flight. If this were a business, that would be called a profit.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this. I have mentioned U.S. CBP, but they have to operate with the resource constraints Congress places upon them – especially difficult in the current environment. And one of the negative side effects of the current environment is that arguments like the one I made in the previous paragraphs are too often assumed, out of hand, to be mere rationales for more spending. Even when you can demonstrate what would be called in the private sector a “business case.” I do think Customs and Border Protection can be more imaginative in the way they do things, and I am starting to see evidence that CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin is moving in that direction. But they have a ways to go.
And the State Department can and should be more imaginative in the ways it deals with requests for visas. Making people in places like Brazil and India travel thousands of miles and pay huge sums of money for an in person interview does not seem to make sense when there are other ways to do this.
These issues too often fly under the radar. But the facts speak for themselves and they speak loud and clear. International visitors are a huge economic benefit to the United States economy. No one has ever even tried to argue the opposite. This seems to be something everyone agrees is good, but then no one can figure out how to make it work. ACI-NA will be spending a lot of time in the coming weeks and months working on this.