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Are visa approval delays keeping free-spending international tourists from visiting L.A.?

Tourists gather on Hollywood Boulevard
Tourists gather on Hollywood Boulevard to check out the Walk of Fame and other sites in 2021. A travel trade group worries that delays in visa approvals are keeping international visitors — and their tourism spending — from the U.S.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles was one of the nation’s hottest tourist destinations before the pandemic struck, reporting a record 51 million domestic and international visitors, who spent $25 billion on hotel stays, meals, tour buses and souvenirs.

With most pandemic travel restrictions gone, the nation’s tourism leaders say delays by the federal government in approving tourist visas are now robbing L.A. and other U.S. tourist destinations of millions of visitors and billions of dollars in tourism spending.

“Outrageous wait times send a message to travelers that the United States is closed for business,” Geoff Freeman, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn., the nation’s travel trade group, said Thursday.

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The U.S. Travel Assn. released a study Thursday, estimating that in 2023, the U.S. is projected to lose $11.6 billion in tourism spending because 6.6 million international travelers will be unable to get visitor visas to travel to the U.S. in a timely manner. Wait times of 400 days and longer to get an interview for a visitor’s visa have deterred potential tourists primarily from Brazil, India and Mexico, according to the study.

Instead of visiting the U.S., most of those travelers would probably choose another vacation destination if visa wait times exceeded a year, the survey of nearly 2,500 potential tourists from Brazil, India and Mexico determined.

Jet fuel prices have been dropping dramatically since May, yet airfares for Thanksgiving and Christmas will be the highest in years.

Adam Burke, chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, agreed that longer waits for visa interviews are keeping international tourists from visiting the region, but he commended federal officials for trying to address the problem.

“We know there is tremendous pent up demand for travel to the U.S., which is being hindered by these delayed visa wait times,” Burke said in a statement.

The tourism and convention board is forecasting 5.3 million international visitors for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2023, a 58% increase over the prior year.

The U.S. Department of State, which oversees approval of visas for travelers from certain countries, has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many embassies and consulates “continue to face staffing challenges that began during the pandemic,” a spokesperson for the agency said in a statement.

The department has bolstered staffing levels, partly by hiring diplomats’ family members, to cut the wait times for visa interviews, the agency said.

“Visa processing is rebounding faster than projected, after a near-complete shutdown and freezing of resources during the pandemic,” the statement said.

Disneyland Resort visitors will soon get to wear a wristband that gives them access to the park, helps them to skip long queues and pulses and glows to the beat of the nighttime light shows.

International visitors spent $13.7 billion in the U.S. in August, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, up from $6.8 billion in 2021 but less than the $19.5 billion spent in 2019.

In Los Angeles, international visitors have accounted for less than 10% of all tourists but generated more than their share of spending because they tend to stay longer and buy more meals, drinks and souvenirs than domestic visitors. Before the pandemic, the number of visitors from China was growing dramatically, prompting several shopping centers in Los Angeles to hire Mandarin-speaking translators to accommodate the tourists.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced plans in June to launch a five-year plan to attract 90 million international visitors, who would spend an estimated $279 billion annually by 2027.

When asked during a news conference about the long waits to get visa interviews, Grant Harris, the assistant secretary of commerce for industry and analysis, put part of the blame for the delays on the pandemic and said his department was working to reduce the visa wait times.

“This is going to be something that we want to continue to work on so that we are facilitating travel to and within the United States,” he said.


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