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Trials and tribulations of international attendees

Reporting again from the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), I wanted to relate some of the Q&A that followed a session presented by three people from the federal government, who addressed the difficulties and challenges of international travel into the U.S. The panelists were:

Helen Marano, Director, U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Travel & Tourism Industries
Tony Edson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Department, Consular Affairs
Tara Riordan, Business Liaison Director, Department of Homeland Security

(The following is paraphrased, so it is not intended to be direct quotations unless quotes are used.)

Q. - What can we do when we seem to continually have trouble getting expedited visas for someone -- say for example, a speaker cancels and we find a last-minute replacement?

A. - The State Dept. has set up a business visa center, and you should email businessvisa@state.gov with problems. They may not always be able to help with the particular issue at hand, but it helps them know if they have areas that have particular problems. Edson said they have set processes that their visa offices are supposed to be following. He also noted that "letters to your events are widely forged throughout the world." He noted that attendee lists from associations can help. Also, advance notice, again to that email, could help if there is a large contingent expected from a particular location.

Q. - Is there a way for attendees who come every year not to have to go through the long, tedious process every year.

A. - Edson said that some of that is a function of the countries involved. China for example, puts significant restrictions on U.S. travelers, so the U.S. reciprocates, meaning visas are only good for 12 months, whereas with a country like India, where the U.S. does grant 5- and 10-year visas. There are also new technologies and procedures being implemented that will expedite the reissuing of visas.

Q. - The experience of a noncitizen entering the U.S. is abysmal. Is there any effort to make the entrance process more welcoming?

A. - Riordan reported that customs experience at two U.S. airports are being given a thorough examination and testing to see how this experience can be improved while continuing to be vigilant about security issues. The airports -- Houston and Dulles (Washington, DC) -- were chosen because they are significantly different from each other and lessons from them can be applied to other airports. There are currently proposals to expand the process to 30 airports, though results are ongoing.

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