Rice seeks better welcome for foreigners

State Department has decreased wait times for visa applicants, with 97 percent now receiving their visas within a day or two.

The United States is trying to shed its image as a nation that does not welcome foreign travelers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit.

New security measures taken since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have caused delays in visa approvals and created an image that the nation is no longer welcoming, she said. "We have heard these concerns ... and we are doing everything we can to improve" ease of travel while boosting security, she said.

Industry leaders say burdensome visa processes, high visa fees and confusion over biometric requirements on documents for entering the United States have prompted potential visitors to choose other travel destinations. Furthermore, the United States still struggles to keep pace with global travel. The U.S. share of international travel has dropped 35 percent since 1999, with an annual loss of roughly $20 billion, according to the Travel Industry Association.

To address traveler concerns, Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in January announced a joint initiative aimed at securing U.S. borders while sending a message that the U.S. door is open to visitors. "When we make it harder for terrorists to travel, we make it harder for them to attack us," she said in explaining the security steps.

Despite gloomy industry statistics, Rice said the number of travelers to the United States has increased every year since 2001. More than 52 million visitors are expected to travel to the United States for study, travel or work this year, she said.

Rice said the State Department has initiated policies that have decreased wait times for visa applicants, with 97 percent now receiving their visas within a day or two.

A work in progress at the Homeland Security and State departments is the creation of "travel documents for the 21st century," including biometric passports to prevent copied, forged or misused documents. E-passports are deployed among diplomats and will be ready for everyone by the end of 2006. Rice said officials also are looking into implementing an e-visa process.

In an effort to expedite travel planning, the United States has created 515 consular positions since 2001. Furthermore, consulate offices later this year will begin testing how digital videoconferencing can help speed the visa process and ease the burden for travelers who live in remote areas to conduct their required visa interviews.

The departments also are testing a program at Washington Dulles and Houston International airports where customized video messages and "friendly greeters" will help ease traveling woes and give travelers a better sense of what to expect in the country.

Rice urged the travel and tourism industry to take an active role in easing travel by advising clients about updated security measures and travel documents. "It is not the end of the road, nor is it as good as it gets," she said.