2016/01/10

US woos tourists from emerging markets

Lawmakers in the U.S. recently passed a law shaking up the 'Visa Waiver Program' that has allowed citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa.

But as Steve Mort reports, experts say the U.S. is now focusing greater attention on attracting tourists from newer markets, such as China.

A daily parade winds through Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom theme park in Florida.

Disney World is one Florida's largest employers and one of the reasons the state attracted nearly 12 million visitors in 2014.

The tourism industry pumps more than 70 billion dollars into Florida's economy every year.

"We have close to one million visitors every year from the UK, we have a lot of visitors from Germany and France."

Professor Youcheng Wang is an Associate Dean at The University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

He recently hosted a summit to promote the tourism business ties between the U.S. and China.

While he says China is the world's largest tourism market, those traveling to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program still outnumber Chinese tourists.

"There are roughly 38 countries in that program. That program probably generates 20 million visitors. And the economic impact is probably about 190 billion U.S. dollars, which is huge."

But U.S. lawmakers say they're are concerned terrorists holding European passports could enter the U.S. visa-free to carry out attacks.

The new rules mean people who've traveled to Iraq and Syria within the previous five years will need to obtain a visa from a U.S. embassy. As will people who hold dual nationality with Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan.

The shake-up also makes it easier for countries to be removed from the Visa Waiver Program altogether.

Professor Wang says the impact of the overhaul is being watched closely by business leaders.

"Because this policy, from a long-term perspective, will effect the tourism industry."

At Miami International Airport, some visitors entering the country say they're concerned about the moves. Rogelio Aguilo is a citizen of Spain - one of the countries in the Visa Waiver Program.

"It would definitely complicate the entry/admission process to the United States and I think it will also affect // the amount of tourism coming in."

Waiting in the arrivals area for a group of Scandinavian tourists is Eki Mikkonen, who runs a tour group in Florida.

"Now if they have to apply for a visa it's much more difficult of course // that is going backward I think."

Industry analysts say while the changes won't impact the process for the vast majority of tourists, they might still cause a decline in visitor numbers.

Professor Youcheng Wang says the reforms could impact the number of visitors from not only visa-waiver countries, but also other places such as China.

"The perception is the key. Because that is what generates perceptions among people - particularly visitors who are interested in coming to visit the United States - that this is maybe not a very welcoming message."

But in contrast, the U.S. and China recently extended the validity of tourist visas offered to each others' citizens.

Industry experts say that's a sign of the increasing long-term importance of Chinese visitors, who in 2014 accounted for the fifth largest number of U.S. arrivals.

The number of tourists from the 38 visa-waiver countries is expected to outnumber Chinese visitors for sometime.

But after nearly a decade of double-digit growth, China already accounts for the second largest chunk of U.S. visitor spending at 24 billion dollars. And that's a trend that tourist leaders hope will continue.