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U.S. faces economic questions over visas

Agustina Ocampo is the kind of foreign traveler whom businesses salivate over.

The 22-year-old Argentine recently dropped more than $5,000 on food, hotels and clothes here during a trip that also took her to Seattle's Space Needle, Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo. But she doubts she will return soon.

"It is a little bit of a headache," said Ocampo, a student who waited months to find out whether her tourist visa application would be approved.

More than a decade after the federal government strengthened travel requirements after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, foreign visitors say getting a temporary visa remains a daunting and sometimes insurmountable hurdle.

The tourism industry hopes to change that with a campaign to persuade Congress to overhaul the State Department's tourist visa application process.

"After 9/1 1, we were all shaken and there was a real concern for security, and I still think that concern exists," said Jim Evans, a former hotel chain CEO heading a national effort to promote foreign travel to the United States.

At the same time, he said, the United States needs "to be more cognizant of the importance of every single traveler."

Tourism leaders said the decline in foreign visitors over the last decade is costing American businesses and workers $859 billion in untapped revenue and at least half a million potential jobs at a time when the slowly recovering economy needs both.

While the State Department has beefed up tourist services in recent years, reducing wait times significantly for would-be visitors will likely be a challenge as officials try to balance terrorist threats and illegal immigration with tight budgets that limit hiring.

"Security is job one for us," said Edward Ramotowski, managing director of the department's visa services. "The reason we have a visa system is to enforce the immigration laws of the United States."

Anti-immigration proponents argue that travel to the United States is already too accessible and that allowing more visitors would put the nation at greater risk.

"Everybody would like to find a way to admit as many people as possible to visit here providing that they visit and then go home," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration group based in Washington, D.C.

"A lot of consular officers underestimate how much people want to come and live here," she said.

Nearly 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2001, compared with fewer than 6.5 million in 2010. The number of visa applicants also dropped sharply after 2001. Those combined forces pushed the U.S. share of global travelers down to 12 percent last year, from 17 percent before 2001.

The proposed immigration overhaul has largely been driven by the U.S. Travel Association, the tourism industry's lobbying giant, and has been endorsed by business titans such as the National Retail Federation, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, and Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing the proposed changes through six bills in the House and the Senate.

Geoff Freeman, the travel association's chief operating officer, said the State Department should be required to keep visa interview wait times at a maximum of 10 days.

"Every day a person is waiting for that interview is a day a person cannot be here supporting the American economy," he said.

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