This week, the United States Department of Commerce released promising statistics on the increase of foreign and domestic tourism in the United States. Specifically, tourism has increased by 8.1% in 2011, supporting an additional 103,000 jobs for a total of 7.6 million jobs. Importantly, these numbers also reflect a significant growth of international tourism to the U.S.
In 2011, approximately 62 million foreign nationals visited the U.S., many of them on B-2 tourist visas, as well as the visa waiver program. Significantly for the U.S. economy, this figure reflects a growth of approximately 2.5 million foreign tourists from 2010. In total, these foreign tourists spent a record $153 billion on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services, making tourism America’s number one service export.
Tourism growth is an important aspect of President Barak Obama’s agenda. In January 2011, for example, President Obama created a Task Force for Travel and Competitiveness to develop comprehensive strategies for tourism growth and related job creation in the U.S. The Task Force, co-chaired by the Secretaries of the Department of Commerce and the Department of Interior, and “is particularly focused on strategies for increasing tourism and recreation jobs by promoting visits to our national treasures; our national parks, wild refuges, cultural and historic sites, monuments, and other public lands and water that can attract travelers from around the country and the globe. As part of those efforts, Commerce’s International Trade Administration is continuing to supply the travel and tourism industry with important data, including international arrivals to the U.S., the forecast of international travel to America for over 30 countries, and estimates of the total impact of travel and tourism on the economy, among others.”
There are two primary ways in which foreign nationals are permitted to visit the U.S. as tourists. First, if an individual is a national of a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) participating country, he or she does not need a visa to travel to the U.S. for a tourism trip of 90 days or less. There are currently 36 participating VWP countries.
Second, if an individual is not a national of a VWP member country, he or she must obtain a B-2 tourist visa. The B-2 tourist visa permits a foreign national to engage in only a set number of activities in the U.S., including tourism, social visits to friends and family, participation in conventions and conferences, gathering of fraternal, social, or service organizations, and certain marriage-related activities. The B-2 visa requires the foreign national to maintain the intent to return to his or her country of nationality, and strictly prohibits employment in the U.S.
Mindful of the potential for visa abuse, tourism to the United States is an essential ingredient to the continued growth of the U.S. economy and strength on the global stage.