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Visits are up in Virginia, which supports U.S. visa reform

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Print this page Catherine MacDonald

Tourism spending by international travelers in Virginia increased by more than 12 percent last year, and Virginia tourism officials want to build on that growth. However, they say a cumbersome U.S. visa program sends the wrong message.

One of the emerging tourism markets targeted by the Virginia Tourism Corp. is Brazil, where it can take 145 days for Brazilian travelers to get a U.S. travel visa processed. “That really means we’re just telling people, ‘Don’t bother,’ ” says Alisa Bailey, CEO and president of the VTC.

Roadblocks like this explain why Democratic Sen. Mark Warner has co-sponsored legislation that would streamline visa process services and reduce extensive wait times. “Tourism is big business in Virginia, but a key obstacle to increasing the number of foreign travelers is our U.S. visa system,” he said during a recent news conference. With international tourists heading to D.C. from their arrival point at the Washington Dulles International Airport, that creates an opportunity, he adds, to draw them “to our beaches and history locations, or the Shenandoah Valley or Southwest Virginia with our music and heritage.”

Warner notes that a 1 percent increase in international tourism corresponds to 160,000 U.S. jobs. In Virginia, tourism was an $18.9 billion dollar business in 2010, supporting 204,000 jobs and providing more than $1.3 billion in state and local taxes. Warner’s bipartisan bill would require the State Department to shift more resources to U.S. embassies and consulates with longer wait times, and encourage them to pursue automatic visa extensions without requiring a second face-to-face interview. It would also make better use of Commerce Department travel data to identify trends and problems in the visa process.

Warner’s legislation, sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee in October, is drawing support from Virginia tourism industry officials. “Virginia’s capital city and region stand to gain so much by supporting the effort to make travel to the U.S. — and to Richmond —  simpler and more streamlined for international visitors,” says Jennifer Carnam, vice president of marketing for the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau (RMCVB). “With events such as the World Road Cycling Championships coming our way in 2015, visa reform is a critical priority.”

The event is expected to draw 450,000 on-site spectators from around the world and to generate an economic impact of $135.3 million in Virginia, according to a study by Chmura Economics and Analytics, a Richmond-based economics consulting firm.

In the meantime, organizations like the VTC and the RMCVB rely on other methods to attract international visitors. In 2010, the Travel Promotion Act formed the Corporation for Travel Promotion (now known as Brand USA), a public-private organization that serves as the first-ever national travel promotion program. The legislation imposes a $10 fee on inbound overseas travelers. That money goes into a larger pool “so that the U.S., for the first time, can have a campaign throughout the world to get people to come to the U.S.,” says Bailey. She contends the country has lost billions of dollars because it lacks a national tourism department.

RMCVB and VTC work with tourism organizations from Maryland and the District of Columbia under the umbrella group Capital Region USA (CRUSA) to market to overseas travelers. The organizations pool their resources and focus on primary markets in the United Kingdom and Germany, secondary markets in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico and Brazil and emerging markets such as Korea and China. “It’s a little more complex than just marketing in the U.S. Different countries have different buying patterns than the U.S.,” Bailey says.

Tourism organizations constantly have to adapt to the way they market overseas. For example, potential travelers in the UK use the Internet more than travelers in Germany, so CRUSA teams focus on an electronic marketing strategy in Britain. However, tourism officials still work to maintain relationships with travel and tour agencies because German travelers tend to book trips through an agent.
Carnam says collaborating with CRUSA has paid off. “Richmond region attractions — particularly those focused on Civil War and Emancipation history — are reporting double-digit increases in attendance, and we believe this is a direct result of our marketing and PR outreach (through CRUSA).”

The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, the organization that runs Washington Dulles International and Reagan National airports, also works with CRUSA to promote tourism. It’s a significant collaboration because “Dulles alone gets approximately 400 flights a week from more than 40 overseas nations,” Bailey says. Plus, while Warner promises his visa legislation won’t do anything “to constrain security,” such strict security measures are a turnoff for many inbound visitors. To circumvent this, CRUSA works with airports to get more accurate inbound traveler information and to make arrival “as nice as possible,” Bailey says.

“We’re trying to make sure that when people arrive here they understand why we have these [security measures],” she says. CRUSA puts up videos to keep those waiting amused, and checks to ensure there are restrooms nearby. “We want them to feel really, really welcome,” Bailey says. 

Another new marketing venture shifts the focus from international travelers to a more specific niche group: meeting and convention planners. In October, the VTC unveiled the Virginia Declaration of Meeting Excellence, an initiative that promotes statewide destinations to meeting and convention planners. This is the commonwealth’s first unified effort to target an industry that has a $263 billion impact nationally, according to the Alexandria-based Convention Industry Council.

“We’re one of the few states that actually work with convention and visitor bureaus to attract visitors to our state,” observes Bailey. Research showed meeting planners “are taxed with lots of responsibility,” she says, so her group developed a website that takes some of the stress out of meeting planning. Planners can plug in various details for their meeting, which then are sent out to all destinations that could meet the requirements. “We’re kind of a matchmaker if you will,” notes Baily. “It is a very cost-effective way to get business into the state because if you can convince one meeting
planner, you can talk about a meeting of 2,000 to 20,000 people.”

To target meeting and convention planners, officials are looking to other modes of transport besides airports. Working with airports is not likely to woo substantially more international meeting/convention planners, says Cleo Battle, RMCVB’s vice president of sales and services. Besides Warner’s visa project, he believes, “high-speed rail is another significant piece in attracting international meeting and convention groups.” Because Richmond International Airport isn’t likely to see a significant increase in direct international flights, he says high-speed rail is a priority for tourism in Richmond.

Virginia is supposed to get $44.3 million in federal grant money to develop a high-speed rail link between Richmond and Washington, D.C., with an eventual goal of connecting Richmond to Raleigh, N.C. If the high-speed rail becomes a reality, international travelers flying into Dulles could someday find themselves traveling south more efficiently — which could mean more meeting/convention bucks for Virginia.

Besides tourists, business travelers and meeting planners, Bailey says Virginia also courts sporting events like the World Road Cycling Championships. Different sporting events work well with the various terrains the commonwealth offers, in both rural and urban settings. She says counties and cities across the state work together to recommend locations for such events. Reminiscent of the state’s motto, Bailey says, “We share the love.” 

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