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Heck proposes higher fee, faster service option for visa requests

Foreign visitors would pay higher fees to fund faster processing under a proposal announced Monday by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

The Welcoming Business Travelers and Tourists to America Act, H.R. 3039, would allow the State Department to increase fees it charges travelers, particularly those in Brazil, China and India, and use the money to increase the number of people processing travel documents and to implement streamlining measures such as the use of video conferences for visa interviews.

Heck is a member of the Republican majority in Congress that has fought against tax and fee increases because of the argument that boosting the size of the government will not create jobs. But Heck said Monday the visa fee is different because travelers are willing to pay more to cut down on wait times of several months just to get a visa interview.

Heck compared the current backup to a grocery store that has enough checkout lanes to process customers but not enough checkers working cash registers.

"If hiring one more person to work at a visa window processes 15, 20 or 50 more people, that is what we have to do," Heck said.

The U.S. Travel Industry Association, a trade group, argues the change could help increase America’s share of global, long-haul traffic from the current level of 12.4 percent to 17 percent. If it works, that would mean 1.3 million jobs and $859 billion in additional economic activity by 2020, the group has contended.

The bill, introduced Friday in the House of Representatives, has support from Heck and Nevada’s two other members of the House, Republican Rep. Mark Amodei and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. Heck also said it has support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., should the measure make it to the Senate.

At the news conference Heck was joined by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, representatives from Caesars Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands Corp., and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"We’ve been needing this type of legislation for years," Caesars spokeswoman Marybel Batjer said. "We need the jobs, we need the customers."

Goodman, who is a member of the convention authority board of directors, said the authority’s goal is to increase from 18 percent to 30 percent the rate of Las Vegas visitation that comes from foreign countries.

In general, foreign visitors tend to stay longer and spend more money in Las Vegas than domestic tourists.

The bill is a follow-up to the Travel Promotion Act, signed into law last year by President Barack Obama. It added a $10 fee to visas, and that income would be added to $100 million in private investment to fund efforts to promote the United States abroad as a destination for travelers.

Before that bill, the United States had been one of the only developed countries in the world without a system to market itself as a travel destination.

Under the new bill, the State Department could use video conferences to conduct visa interviews. The technology would make it much easier for people in large nations such as Brazil, China and India by eliminating the need for them to make long trips to consulate offices to conduct visa interviews.

Increasing the number of people dedicated to processing visa paperwork could also speed the process.

Travel association officials said a majority of respondents to a survey of travelers from Brazil, China and India indicated that the United States is "a difficult place to visit" and attributed stagnating visitation rates to red tape.

The association officials said the State Department doesn’t meet its own goal of interviewing all visa applicants within 30 days of their application. Heck’s bill would reduce the goal from 30 days to 12 days.

Heck said the bill wouldn’t set the amount of the fee that could be added to pay for the changes. It would authorize the State Department to make the changes and set a fee that covers the costs.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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