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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Good News On Getting Visas To Visit America-- And Bad News About That Trip You Always Wanted To Take To Timbuktu

I tend to write more about traveling to places like Nepal, Mali and Afghanistan and Tierra del Fuego and Ken writes more about walking tours here in America. I bet the Obama Administration would be a lot happier with Ken's perspective than with mine. They just announced a national strategy to increase travel and tourism in the U.S. and they're aiming for 100 million visitors a year by 2021. The strategy is actually a blueprint for expanding travel to and within the country. It sets out a goal of increasing American jobs by attracting and welcoming 100 million international visitors annually by the end of 2021, more than a 50% increase over the number expected this year. They estimate that these international visitors would spend something like $250 billion per year, creating jobs and spurring economic growth in communities across the country.
“Tens of millions of tourists from all over the world come and visit America every year. They stay in our hotels, they eat at our restaurants, they visit our attractions, and they help create jobs. At a time when too many Americans are still looking for work, we need to make it easier for more people to visit this country and keep our economy growing,” said President Obama.
The U.S. tourism and travel industry is a substantial component of U.S. GDP, exports, and employment. Efforts to make America the top tourist destination in the world offer a tremendous opportunity to create jobs and strengthen the U.S. economy. In 2011, the travel and tourism industry generated $1.2 trillion from domestic and international travel and supported 7.6 million jobs-- with international travel to the United States resulting in a record $153 billion in receipts and supporting 1.2 million jobs. The Commerce Department recently released a travel and tourism forecast projecting that the U.S. can expect 4-5% average annual growth in tourism over the next five years, and that 65.4 million foreign travelers are projected to visit the U.S. in 2012 alone.

There are a number of the ways they're hoping to increase tourism from other countries. They're all worked up over Brand USA, a non-profit organization created by the Travel Promotion Act that is charged with promoting foreign travel to this country, which is now running its first set of international marketing campaigns to promote the U.S. as a travel destination abroad. The first targets are Canada, Japan, and the U.K. and are the next planned are for South Korea and Brazil. Interesting they would mention Brazil, which has had a longstanding dispute with the U.S. about cumbersome visa policies. And, sure enough, our Nobel Peace Prize winning president may not have ended the war in Afghanistan yet but he is ending the visa war with Brazil!
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is the flagship of our international tourism strategy. Over 60 percent of all overseas travelers to the United States are from VWP countries. In 2010, these travelers generated over $60 billion in annual tourism revenue. While the VWP remains the largest travel facilitation program, the Obama Administration is also committed to easing travel for the approximately 40 percent of international travelers who currently require visas to enter the United States. Building on the progress made over the past several years and in response to the President’s Executive Order, the Obama Administration is facilitating legitimate travel to America while maintaining security by:
·         Supporting Legislative Improvements to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The Obama Administration supports and is committed to working with Congress on legislation to strengthen and expand VWP eligibility to nations with low visa refusal rates and rapidly growing economies, consistent with national security requirements. 
·         Increasing Arrivals. Comparing the first six months of fiscal year 2012 to the first six months of fiscal year 2011, arrivals of travelers using the Visa Waiver Program have increased by 8 percent and arrivals of travelers from China and Brazil have increased by 33 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Total non-immigrant admissions, which consists of admissions of travelers who are not U.S. citizens or returning residents, have increased by 4.5 percent during the same period.
·         Shortening Visa Interview Wait Times. Around the world, wait times for visa interviews are generally short, and have dropped dramatically in some of the busiest travel markets where demand for visas is highest. Now, travelers currently wait less than one week for an appointment at U.S. consulates in China, less than one week in the Brazilian cities of Brasilia, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro, and 30 days or less in São Paulo. In anticipation of the summer travel season, the Department of State is adding staff and streamlining its operations to continue to keep visa interview wait times low. 

·         Streamlining the Visa Process. A new pilot program now underway at the Department of State to streamline visa processing will free up more interview slots for first-time applicants and allow consular officers to more effectively spend their time evaluating higher-risk visa applicants. Consular officers may waive in-person interviews for certain low-risk, qualified individuals, such as those renewing their visas within 48 months of the expiration of their previous visas, and Brazilian applicants below the age of 16 and age 66 and older. Consular officers retain the authority to interview any applicant in any category if security or other concerns are present.

·         Building Capacity in China and Brazil to Meet Demand. The Department of State is investing approximately $68 million in 2012 on existing facilities in Brazil and $22 million in China – adding interview windows, expanding consular office space, and improving waiting areas. President Obama has recently announced that the United States will establish consulates in Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, Brazil, while major expansion projects are underway in China.
·         Increasing Consular Staffing and Implementing Innovative Hiring Programs. To address immediate growth in demand and ensure that the United States can continue to offer timely visa services to qualified applicants, the Department of State is doubling the number of diplomats performing consular work in China and Brazil over the next year. Similarly, the first group of newly hired consular adjudicators recently arrived at U.S. consulates in Brazil and China. These adjudicators were hired under a program targeting recruits who already speak Portuguese or Mandarin.
Almost a million people a day enter the U.S. There will be a need for a lot more walking tour guides as time goes on. And, as far as Mali... even more dangerous than Arizona. We're advising anyone even thinking about visiting Mali to change plans and go to Bali... or Maui. The political crisis isn't getting any better. Most of the country-- including Timbuktu-- is now closed to tourism entirely. The crisis in Mali is actually existential.
When last year's initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups-- including Tuareg tribesmen-- ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Charging that the civilian government was not being tough enough against the rebels, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup on March 22 and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the "war on terror."

Sanogo's training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how "a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds."

...Tuareg rebels, taking advantage of the political divisions in the capital, consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country by capturing its remaining towns and declaring an independent state. The MNLA's victories also led various Islamist militias, including extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, to seize a number of towns and impose their rigid ideological agenda... [E]xtremist Islamic militias in the north, taking advantage of the country's chaos, have reportedly been destroying historic shrines and other cultural landmarks they consider idolatrous in Timbuktu and other northern cities.

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