Will President Trump Restrict the Successful Visa Waiver Program?

By: Stephen B. Richer, CTP

In a late breaking development, the Trump Administration is planning a review of the Visa Waiver Program, which has enabled visitors from a growing list of countries to come to the United States for up to ninety days without a visa.  These countries which qualify under circumstances including meeting a high standard for limited overstays generate the bulk of international visitation.  Additionally, such visitors qualify by applying through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), an alternative method to verify secure travelers. They pay $14 every two years for this privilege, $10 of which goes into a fund against which Brand USA can draw up to $100 million annually to market the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has cited the Visa Waiver Program as a concern because terrorists have been showing up in countries which are part of the program.  The implication is that the Visa Waiver Program somehow is less secure than the visa process, but one can argue that this is not the case.

Security concerns have not been compromised for the Visa Waiver Program, but it is a common misinterpretation given the inclusion of the word “Waiver” in the name.  IITA Chairman Gary Schluter serves on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board and its committee focused on the visa process. They are exploring renaming the program to be more descriptive of its true purpose, which is providing secure entry for international visitors.

Even though this proposed review is now on the table, the Trump Administration is on record to extend the program, but the terms of the extension have not yet been fully defined.

This is a looming challenge for inbound receptive operators who are highly dependent on customers who significantly hail from Visa Waiver Program countries.  A change in this program which is more restrictive in any way could produce further discouragement to visit the United States.

Coming on the heals of Destination Capitol Hill, the industry’s major lobbying effort which focused on the Visa Waiver Program and keeping it strongly in place, and being a new point of concern just a few weeks before IPW, when the most important international buyers will be in Washington, the outcome of this review of the Visa Waiver Program will be critical for IITA.  Inbound operators will need to provide both a clear case of advocacy for the VWP in its current form, as well as projections on what will happen to inbound tourism if there are more restrictive changes.

The Visa Waiver Program is already facing a related challenge from the European Union, which wants all of its members to be treated equally by the United States.

The European Union is threatening to curtail or eliminate visa free travel for Americans, if visa waiver is not immediately provided to EU member countries Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus. European legislators have already voted to take such action, although no steps have been taken by the European Commission to actually implement the vote.

This set of prospective changes in the visa waiver process has three possible challenging outcomes:

  1. Demotivating restrictions on travel from VWP countries will reduce inbound visitation.
  2. The European Commission acts on the legislative recommendations of the European Union, thereby reducing traffic in both directions through confrontation.
  3. Brand USA sees its funding source reduced by lower usage of the Visa Waiver Program and the accompanying Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

Hopefully, none of this will happen.  It is, however, imperative and urgent to keep defending the current Visa Waiver Program and even ask for its expansion as a secure way to determine who can visit America.