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Aspen resort officials join debate over travel visas

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen resort officials are joining a national chorus within the tourism industry in asking the federal government to ease visa hurdles that they say discourage international travel to the U.S.

The issue came up Tuesday during the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors meeting and is likely to be a point of discussion if local business representatives gain the ear of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton. The Colorado congressman’s office recently contacted chamber President Debbie Braun about arranging a meeting to discuss various issues of local concern.

With the U.S. Travel Association urging Congress to pass new legislation that would ease visa restrictions, the topic is ripe for discussion with Tipton, several chamber board members agreed.

In a visit to Florida last month, President Barack Obama also made a case for measures to help boost the country’s share of the international travel market. And he signed an executive order with the goal of increasing the capacity to process nonimmigrant visas in China and Brazil and expand a waiver program that allows visitors to travel to the U.S. for stays of 90 days or shorter without a visa.

Tougher travel-visa requirements were put in place more than a decade ago following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Foreign visitors in some countries say the process of obtaining a travel visa is daunting, while U.S. tourism representatives contend that the hurdles for international visitors cost the U.S. jobs and tourist spending.

“It’s a big issue in our industry,” said Warren Klug, chairman of the chamber board and general manager of the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel, on Wednesday. “The international business is a big part of the marketplace, certainly for this hotel but also for Aspen in general.”

The existing waiver program allows travelers from 36 nations to visit the U.S. temporarily without a visa. Proponents of easing travel restrictions want to add countries to the list, including Argentina, Brazil, Poland and Taiwan.

Brazil is a key source of international visitors to Aspen, according to Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass. Australia, which is on the waiver list, is another.

“It’s been a big issue,” Tomcich said of the visa challenges some travelers endure. “I know it’s one the entire travel industry is focused on. It appears to be a barrier to come to the United States.”

In Brazil, for example, entire families that intend to take a vacation, including the nanny, must be interviewed in person, which may mean traveling a great distance, said the director of sales and marketing at a local hotel. The process is expensive and time consuming, particularly for individuals who don’t reside close to consuls in São Paulo and Rio de Janiero.

A Brazilian tourist at Walt Disney World in Florida during Obama’s visit said the visa process cost her at least $500 and took six months to complete, according to an Associated Press report.

David Perry, senior vice president of mountain operations for Aspen Skiing Co., called the process a “travesty” at the chamber board meeting.

“They get grilled like they’re criminals,” he said. “It’s a negative for tourism in a big way.”

Klug said Wednesday that he supports U.S. security efforts but wants to ease the hurdles for international vacationers.

“The bottom line is we get a lot of international business here, and the last thing we want to do is make it more difficult for these people to get here,” he said. “We need to make it easier for legitimate travelers to come.”

janet@aspentimes.com


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