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California tourism groups worried about changes to visa program

California tourism groups worried about changes to visa program
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The head of a group representing California tourism organizations says she is concerned that the state's more than $117-billion annual tourism industry could be hurt by a plan to change a visa program following the Paris terror attacks.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a news conference last week that she and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., plan to introduce legislation after Thanksgiving that would prohibit anyone who has traveled to Syria or Iraq in the last five years from traveling to the United States without a traditional visa. Recent terrorist attacks in Paris have focused attention on the nearly 30-year-old Visa Waiver Program, which allows people from 38 mostly European countries to visit the United States without visas.

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Participating countries have to meet security standards, including vetting the applicants with their own security databases and using standardized travel documents, which in some cases include biometric data about the traveler. More than 20 million people use the program yearly.

Supporters say the program requires higher standards than the normal visa program and requires more intelligence sharing with the United States. Critics say it leaves security in the hands of other governments.

California Travel Assn. President Barbara Newton and leaders of several California tourism boards already were in Washington for a U.S. Travel Association meeting when word of the legislation began to come out. They stopped by the Capitol complex to speak about their concerns with Feinstein's staff hours before the news conference.

"We certainly support security and safety of our citizens and everyone around the world," Newton said by phone this week. "But we don't want to see the government do something that would disrupt business and travel."

An April 2015 report for Visit California and the Governor's Office of Business Development, estimated that tourism brought in more than $117 billion in direct spending and $9.3 billion in state and local taxes in 2014.

"Obviously, in California we're very concerned about this conversation and making sure people don't act rashly," Newton said.

Several Visa Waiver-eligible countries such as Australia and Japan send international tourists to California, she said. China, the No. 1 source of international travel to California, is not part of the program. California received nearly 16.5 million international visitors in 2014, according to a July Travel and Tourism report compiled for Visit California.

Newton said new barriers to international tourism would affect restaurants, rental car companies, resorts and even local tax collection.

"It has been a large and growing part of tourism and it's absolutely essential to our success as a state," she said.

San Diego Tourism Authority President Joe Terzi said the changes proposed by Feinstein and Flake are "pretty aggressive" and that California travel officials asked for the meeting to make sure any changes are for public safety, not just out of fear about the program.

"We understand that security is of the more utmost importance… but we also wanted to make sure the senator understood the great impact tourism has on our communities," he said.

U.S. Travel Assn. Executive Vice President Jonathan Grella echoed their concerns. In a Nov. 19 statement he urged Congress to approach any changes deliberately.

"On crucial matters of security above all others, Congress is obligated to be as clear-eyed and deliberative as possible, and not fall prey to the time-honored tradition of rushed, emotional overreactions," he said. "We are concerned that [Visa Waiver Program] critics are not taking the proper time to listen to security experts, who overwhelmingly extol the security benefits of the program."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said by phone Monday there may be room for changes to the program.

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For example, whether countries qualify for the waiver depends on the percentage of visa applications it denies, "which basically doesn't make a lot of sense as a criteria," Lofgren said.

And, visitors' biometric information isn't checked until they arrive in the United States, rather than before they get on a plane, she said.

Lofgren said it's reasonable to ask more international visitors to go through the normal visa application process.

People who want to travel from Mexico must have an in-person meeting at a U.S. consulate, but those coming from most European countries just have to fill out an online application.

"Most of the world has to go in and get a face-to-face for a visa," Lofgren said. "It's not an insurmountable challenge."

Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said during the news conference she recognizes the program is important to business and tourism.

"But, I also believe it is the soft underbelly of our national security policies," she said. "Terrorists could exploit the problem, could go from France to Syria as 2,000 fighters have done, come back to France, use the visa waiver program and without further scrutiny come into the United States," she said.

Feinstein said the number of lost or stolen passports available on the black market shows why greater scrutiny is needed.

Feinstein's bill would also require additional information like fingerprints and photographs, from travelers before they arrive in the U.S. All people using the Visa Waiver Program would have to have a passport with an e-chip to store biometric data.

The program needs to continue operating, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," but changes might be needed.

"It's a very popular program that people use virtually every day. But there are security enhancements that we have made and we should evaluate whether more is necessary and I'm happy to have that conversation with our friends in Congress, they're interested in this, too."

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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