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Diplomacy in Action

Roundtable Remarks at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Krishna R. Urs
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Chicago, IL
April 7, 2014


Remarks as prepared

Good afternoon and I appreciate the opportunity to speak before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I understand that the Council has been in existence for over 90 years and has hosted numerous State Department speakers over the years, and just as recently as last week, an Assistant Secretary and a Deputy Assistant Secretary! I am proud to be part of this tradition and thank you for offering a forum for U.S. diplomats to share stories about the good work the Department of State is doing in several realms. With just over one percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID provide security, stability, prosperity, jobs, and opportunity by addressing some of the most complex challenges of our time.

The reason I am in Chicago is the U.S. Travel Association International Pow Wow Conference, or IPW, as most people call it, which is happening at McCormick Place. IPW has over 5,000 attendees, with many international buyers who have traveled to Chicago just for IPW. I am here along with my counterparts from the State Department as well as many other federal agencies to network with and listen to travel professionals who dedicate their time to marketing the U.S. as a travel destination. I am also here to share the message of what the U.S. Government is doing in the interest of promoting increased tourism to the United States. And it is this subject that I’d like to speak with you first and foremost today.

The U.S. Government is very engaged in promoting foreign travel to the U.S. Many agencies have a role in this effort. Just within the State Department we have the Bureau of Consular Affairs, managing the worldwide visa process, the Bureau of International Information Programs, which has campaigns to promote international tourism through our network of nearly 300 embassies and consulates abroad. And, the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, my bureau, which is working to secure favorable conditions for increased air connectivity to the United States.

In order to achieve greater success attracting foreign visitors to the U.S., both government and private industry stakeholders must be in sync, meeting the demands of these travelers. Turning to a metaphor, you can think of the flow of tourism to the U.S. passing through a pipe. In order to prevent bottlenecks in this pipe, the stakeholders must insure that they are doing their parts to facilitate tourist travel.

For starters, potential visitors have to know about the U.S. as a travel destination and understand what it has to offer. So Foreign Commercial Service staff from the U.S. Commerce Department have a role to play very early in the process by working with the private sector to promote the U.S. as a travel destination. Many Foreign Commercial Service staff are based out of U.S. embassies and consulates with a role of promoting trade with the U.S., including travel promotion. In addition to the FCS, we have Brand USA. Brand USA is a public-private partnership that works to promote the United States as a tourist destination. In fact, Brand USA has joined with the State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, which is a collaboration with the James Beard Foundation and a group of some of the country’s most renowned chefs. Through the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, five of America’s top chefs will be sent to embassies in East Asia and the Pacific to participate in July 4th celebrations this year. This initiative to promote travel to the U.S. through food includes the release of a culinary guide to the United States that highlights regional American cuisines and products, along with recipes from renowned chefs.

Beyond U.S. Government travel and tourism promotion, the industry has a role to play through advertising. Print and television ads from theme parks, hotels, and tourist boards generate interest. Many people think of iconic locations like New York or Disneyland when they conjure up images of the U.S. Not everyone, however, is looking for a big city or theme park vacation, and we must be able to attract tourists with different tastes to the many different regions and attractions we have to offer. And it is the job of government and private sector stakeholders to show what the other options are, from beach and ski vacations to nature, culinary and adventure tourism.

Once you’ve convinced people to travel to the U.S., they need to be able to get here. If non-stop flights or convenient connections are limited and prices are too high, people may go elsewhere. One of the things my bureau is responsible for is negotiating bilateral aviation agreements with other countries. The most liberal of these agreements are called “open skies”, which allow any U.S. or partner country airline to fly from any point in the U.S. to any point in the partner country we’ve reached the open skies agreement with. Right now we have open skies agreements with 114 countries. While we have open skies with many of the key inbound tourist markets to the U.S., we are doing what we can to further liberalize agreements in other important markets, like China. In the next several months, we’ll be sending negotiators to Mexico aiming to achieve further liberalization in an agreement with our neighbor to the south, a country with huge potential for inbound tourism. We take tourism potential into account when deciding whether to make a particular country an open skies priority. Currently, Mexico, China, and South Africa are top priorities for negotiating new open skies agreements. Growing middle classes are the source of much new tourism to the United States.

After a traveler has evaluated his or her flight options and decided to take the trip, then the visa question arises. Citizens from 38 Visa Waiver Program participants and Canada can travel to the U.S. without a visa, with Chile joining Visa Waiver just last Monday. For those who need a visa, they must make an appointment and appear for a visa interview (though many applicants are now able to renew a previously expired visa without an interview). As my counterparts in the Bureau of Consular Affairs will tell you, reducing visa wait times and streamlining the visa application process has been a big effort. Around the world, over 98 percent of visa applicants now receive an appointment in less than three weeks. In markets with extremely high demand—like China, Brazil, India, and Mexico—the Bureau of Consular Affairs has made great strides. People in these “big four” countries can currently get a visa interview appointment in less than ten days.

Visa in hand and plane ticket purchased, the traveler is off to the U.S. And what is their first experience after arriving on U.S. soil? Going through Customs and Border Protection. For many travelers, this is their first time setting foot on U.S. soil and the first impression visitors have of the U.S. Our colleagues over at Customs and Border Protection have the tough task of processing tens of thousands of visitors every day at airports across the U.S. If you’ve traveled to the U.S. enough, you know that international flights aren’t typically staggered throughout the day. Flights from Europe often arrive within a couple hours of one another during the afternoon and many planes come in from South America first thing in the morning. This is a tremendous challenge to our CBP Officers. CBP is working to reduce wait times and introducing technology and trusted traveler programs to streamline the experience at ports of entry. Some of you may have heard of the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program. U.S. citizens and nationals of a handful of other countries pay a membership fee to participate in the program. In exchange, they enjoy expedited processing. Similarly, Automated Passport Control kiosks are being introduced at various U.S. airports. They allow U.S. citizens and citizens of visa waiver countries to complete their customs declaration forms using a touch screen. This reduces officer processing time and increases throughput. It’s true that nationals of many countries cannot join Global Entry or use the APC kiosks, however, these programs give officers more time to process other passengers who are not eligible, thereby reducing wait times. The Transportation Security Administration has a program similar to Global Entry, called PreCheck, that allows for higher efficiency at airport security screening checkpoints.

Once travelers are in the U.S. there is a host of factors that affect the quality of their trip, from infrastructure to hospitality and language fluency. Are there enough hotels? Can people get around using public transportation? Are people friendly? Are there tour guides who speak the language of the travelers they are escorting? Travelers from different countries often have different general needs and interests, so being responsive to the preferences of visitors from different parts of the world is a big challenge for the travel industry and hospitality providers.

Returning to the pipe metaphor, all of these facets of the travel experience I’ve named are part of the same pipe, and they are interrelated. If there are obstructions in any part of the pipe it’s going to result in reduced tourism to the U.S. If we have an open skies agreement, but consumers lack awareness of the U.S. as a travel destination, airlines may not increase flight services even if they are allowed to with an open skies agreement. Similarly, if travelers who visit the U.S. are dissatisfied with their experience, whether that stems from a long wait at a port of entry or difficulty with the language, they will go back home and tell their friends of the bad experience, leading to decreased interest in the United States as a travel destination.

As some of you may know, travel and tourism is a key priority for President Obama. In January 2012 the President signed an Executive Order calling for a national tourism strategy to make the U.S. a top world travel destination. Many government agencies, beyond the ones I’ve named, are involved in this strategy. We recognize that the government has a significant role to play in attracting foreign visitors, working alongside the private sector. You are a globally sophisticated group and I think most of you would agree, travel has more than just an economic value to the U.S. It promotes greater mutual understanding between Americans and visitors from other parts of the world. I believe tourism and cultural exchanges lead to a more stable and secure world. Thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you and I look forward to taking your questions.

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