By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors

As many long-time readers of my blog know, my colleagues at the Orange County Visitors Association and I have worked diligently for the past few years to entice visitors to our many local, world-class attractions, both from our sister US states and from abroad. Our efforts are paying off.  In the past year alone, we welcomed a record 46 million visitors to Orange County – 4 million, or almost 10%, of them came from abroad.  With John Wayne International Airport being the closest international airport to the nearby Disneyland Resort and other famous California attractions, our community is positioned to reap the benefits of this increase in visitors.

While we’re encouraged by the positive response our efforts are enjoying, we recognize that lots more can be done to boost our current momentum, especially among international travelers.

So, earlier this year, I, along with other travel and tourism leaders from across our destination, met with US Congresswoman Mimi Walters, a strong champion of the US tourism community. On the table for discussion were two proposals that we are confident will go a long way to providing the additional impetus to our continued success, if they were adopted by the US government.

The first proposal concerns enhancing our current Visa Waiver Program by reforming the visa processing system and admitting additional, select countries, such as Poland and Israel, into the program. Both actions would significantly boost international travel to Orange County (and other US destinations).

Why focus on international visitors? Simple.  These travelers produce enormous economic gains.  Recent surveys reveal that the average overseas traveler to the US stays 17 nights and spends over $4,300 per person while in this country.  With this in mind, leaders in the US House and Senate have introduced the JOLT Act.  If enacted, this legislation would embrace visa reforms, strengthen our national security and provide a pathway for visitors from select countries to travel here for leisure activities, without a visa, for up to 90 days.

The legislation would also strengthen the current Visa Waiver Program by protecting our homeland and public through individualized pre-screening of travelers, and would encourage greater information sharing and enhanced international partnerships among law enforcement and intelligence services.

It would also result in more secure passports among the participating countries. These enhanced security requirements would keep us safe while allowing for a streamlined and efficient visa processing system that doesn’t put up barriers against the international traveler.

These international travelers are big business. Last year, for example, more than 20.3 million US visitors – 60% of all overseas visitors – arrived in our country through the Visa Waiver Program.  They generated $190 billion in total revenue for the US economy and supported nearly one million American jobs.

The second policy proposal under discussion was our call to maintain the existing Open Skies agreements policy that our country has had with 114 other nations for more than 25 years. Last May, I blogged about the importance of these agreements.  They are essentially free trade pacts among countries for air travel. Open Skies also prohibits countries from regulating air travel routes and capacity among each others’ air carriers.

The Open Skies agreements have been credited with expanding international air travel choices and have also been a huge contributor to job creation and our economy.

Right now, leaders of the three US legacy carriers – Delta, American and United -are urging Obama Administration officials to break some of these agreements and freeze expansion of air service to the US by a number of specific foreign carriers. The travel community has urged our Congressional leaders in Washington to maintain the nation’s Open Skies agreements as they are.  Official Government guidance on next steps in the process is expected in coming weeks.

Our local travel and tourism community here in Orange County is committed to security while increasing the quality of the travel experience for our visitors. We need to work together to improve the visa process, make travel more economical and encourage international travel across the globe and to our community.  More efficient travel systems, as well as policies that promote international travel, are a win for our local economy and for the nation.

As Published