More than 6,000 delegates convened in Las Vegas, Nevada in June for IPW, an annum convention--formerly called International Pow Wow--organized by the U.S. Travel Association to promote inbound international travel to the United States. For companies that sell U.S.-bound travel from Latin America, one frequently discussed topic was of particular importance: the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and the ease with which travelers in the region can obtain visas.
A lot of potential business is riding on the visa process, according to Patricia Rojas-Ungar, vice president of government relations at the U.S. Travel Association, where she leads the development of policy agenda and represents the travel community before the U.S. government. "I've been coming to IPW for five years, and I've seen a sea change in demand," she said. "Several years ago, the main issue--whether we were talking to Mexico or Brazil, the two biggest [Latin American] markets--was that it takes so long to get in the door for the [visa] interview, and so we have to give the Obama administration credit for listening to U.S. Travel make the case for removing that barrier."
Wait times for visa processing, according to Rojas-Ungar, are down in many parts of Latin America, while the number of applications has risen. Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, told IPW delegates that the wait time for a U.S. visa in Brazil has been reduced from an average of 100 days to just five days.
To make the visa process smoother, Rojas said that the U.S. government has hired more consular officers in Latin America and also reviewed how they could make the experience more welcoming. "In fact, in Brazil, the state department actually worked with Disney, whose job is to make people feel comfortable. Disney was helpful in redesigning the queuing experience in Sao Paulo and Rio."
Also key to developing growth in U.S.-bound travel from Latin America is the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, when they meet certain requirements. In Latin America, all eyes are on Chile, which is in line to become the first Latin American country to join the program.
Adrian Turner, who serves as the Chile chapter president of the American Society of Travel Agents (Asta), predicts that the Visa Waiver Program will result in a surge in travel from Chile to the United States and vice versa, since it...