Doesn’t seem unreasonably high visa wait times are going away any time soon in Mexico, India and Colombia.
Wait times for first-time visitor visas in Colombia, Mexico and India stretching to hundreds of days will continue to be a headache for the U.S. travel industry.
The reason? Demand for visas reached record highs in those countries, according to a media roundtable hosted by the State Department on Monday. The agency shared milestones, innovations and plans for the 2024 fiscal year.
Previously, the visa backlog this year had been driven by pent-up demand coupled with staffing shortages at multiple U.S. embassies. Both were holdovers from the pandemic.
“When you see a 600-day wait time in a place like Bogota, when our counselor session there has done in some cases twice as many visas as they’ve ever done in some months, it’s really, a new signal of demand for travel that goes beyond sort of a hangover for Covid,” said Julie Stufft, deputy assistant secretary for visa services.
“These are places with traditionally high demand for U.S. visas, but nothing to the level that we’ve seen with these kind of four or five, 600-day wait times,” said Stufft.
Wait times were highest in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and India — all top traveler markets for the U.S. In some embassies like Mumbai, visa wait times reached over two years earlier this year.
The wait times will cost the industry $12 billion in lost traveler spending this year, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
State Department Works to Keep Up
To cut the backlog the State Department had implemented a number of initiatives like waiving interview requirements; interviewing applicants on weekends; filling processing staff to their pre-pandemic level.
A record number of visas have been issued in some key markets like India. In Brazil, wait times “fell through the floor,” said Stufft.
But that hasn’t been enough to substantially reduce wait times in some countries. In Mumbai, the wait time is over 500 days, according to the State Department’s website.
“The assumption is that high production levels will ultimately bring down those wait times and I still think that’s true, but I think it’s less true than I thought a year ago,” said Stufft.
The State Department is focused on figuring out how to get these times down in 2024. “We can’t have a post that’s out there, what a four or 500-day wait time,” said Stufft. “That’s the white whale we need to tackle in these big places.”
In the meantime, many travelers in Colombia, Mexico and India will be deterred from coming to the U.S. “This is anything but a welcoming environment,” U.S. Travel CEO and President Geoff Freeman at Skift Global Forum in September. “If you are a leisure traveler or a business traveler, you’re likely to say, I’ll go somewhere else.”
Chinese Demand for Visas Is ‘Nowhere Near’ Pre-Pandemic Levels
While demand for tourist visas hit new highs in some countries, China’s a different story. Chinese demand for first time visitor visas is still far off from its pre-pandemic levels.
“China has traditionally been one of our biggest, if not the biggest visa mission, it’s nowhere near that level right now,” said Stufft. “Pre-Covid we’re doing I think probably five or six times what they’re doing today.”
Chinese tourists are vital to the U.S. travel industry’s recovery from the pandemic. Having spent $35 billion in 2019, they spend more than any other nationality in the U.S., Chris Thompson, CEO and president of Brand USA, the U.S.’s tourism board, told Skift at a conference in July.
Next year could be better. “If it comes back in 2024 to levels that kind of look like what they look like in 2018 or 19, we’ll have very, very high numbers. We’re ready for that,” Stufft said. “It’s just a question of how quickly the China demand will rebound.”
When millions of Chinese nationals need to renew their 10-year visas next year, the State Department won’t need to interview. “The good news about that is that those people don’t have to be interviewed for the most part,” said Stufft.