“The visa issue is very
says association planner
Pamela Ballinger, CMP. “Whole portions
of the world are not attending meetings.”
Change has come fast along the U.S. border
since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A cornucopia of
high-tech gadgetry is revolutionizing the nature of personal
identification, while new policies are making over the process of
entering and exiting this country for foreign nationals and
Some of the modifications, like providing self-serve kiosks to
speed the ID process for visitors to the United States, are
universally embraced as sensible measures. Other changes, like
issuing passports souped-up with radio-frequency identification
microchips or digitally fingerprinting all visitors, are jarring to
many travelers, privacy experts, business travel advocates and
Will international attendees increasingly shun U.S. events
because of the high hassle factor of new border and visa policies?
During a time of war, could American attendees be endangered abroad
by passports that broadcast their nationality? How much safer are
we with the new border policies and procedures? M&C spoke to
planners, government sources, privacy watchdogs, association
executives, business travel experts and international travelers to
The Visa Hurdle
The process of applying for a B-1 visa (a six-month visa for
foreign nationals entering the United States to attend seminars,
conferences, meetings, trade shows and conventions) has grown
longer and more involved since 9/11.
Now, stricter attention to security can mean discouraging
delays for would-be foreign attendees, who must make an interview
appointment with the nearest U.S. consulate in their home country.
The in-person visa interview sometimes necessitates traveling to
another city, and it always means paying fees and undergoing the
scrutiny of a background check. For some foreign nationals, the
trouble is not worth it.
“The visa issue is very restricting,” says Pamela Ballinger,
CMP, vice president of meetings and exhibits for Association
Headquarters, an association management firm in Mount Laurel, N.J.
“Even though international attendance is still growing at most of
our meetings, it’s primarily from certain parts of the world. The
visa issue doesn’t really affect attendance from Europe. But whole
portions of the world are not attending meetings. It’s Third World
countries and the Middle East that are really being affected. It
can take six to eight months to get a visa there.”
On the bright side, there is some evidence the visa application
process may be getting faster. The Washington, D.C.-based National
Academies keep statistics on how long it takes to get visas for
hundreds of international attendees to U.S. scientific and academic
events. In 2003, the average delay for a visa applicant was 147
days, but that wait time decreased by more than half in 2004, to
just 70 days.
But not everyone gets in. Of 2,173 U.S. visa applications
monitored by the National Academies, 91 percent were granted, while
4 percent were delayed or canceled and 2 percent denied
A VISA WAIVER PROGRAM ATLAS
Visitors from the following 27 Visa Waiver Program countries now must register with US-VISIT before traveling to America. In addition, these nations are required to issue passports with digital pictures and machine readability. By 2006, they’ll need to upgrade their passports with RFID chips and biometric identifiers to remain in the VWP program. However, the older, conventional passports still will be accepted until they expire.
The Smart Border
Designed to halt fraud, identity theft and the entry of known
terrorists or criminals into the country, US-VISIT (United States
Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) came into effect
at the end of 2003. The screening and verification program, run by
the Department of Homeland Security, was the first step toward
creating a “virtual” or “smart” border around the United States. It
is also the biggest program based on biometric identification in
US-VISIT determines if foreign citizens are eligible for entry
into the States, records their arrivals and departures, and deploys
equipment at every port of entry to verify their identity with
“A biometric is a characteristic unique to an individual,” such
as fingerprints, iris patterns, the facial image or even the human
voice, says a spokesperson for US-VISIT. “In trying to enhance
security and facilitate travel, by using biometrics we’re able to
confirm an individual in front of us is the same individual who was
issued a visa. Biometrics also enhances the security of documents,
because no longer can you steal a visa. Now, it’s linked to finger
The program works like this: All foreigners planning travel to
the United States must come to a visa-issuing post (like a U.S.
embassy or consulate) and enroll in US-VISIT by submitting
biometric data that is “captured” by a State Department official.
The only nationals exempted from US-VISIT requirements are Mexicans
with border-crossing cards and Canadians. Visitors from the rest of
the world must pose for a digital photograph and have all 10
fingerprints scanned electronically.
In addition, the traveler must submit “biographic” data
traditionally found on passports, such as name, address and date of
birth. Next, the biographic and biometric data are checked against
multiple watch lists maintained by U.S. intelligence agencies. The
data is then stored as part of the visitor’s “travel record.”
Despite the invasive nature of US-VISIT, many even those in the
travel industry like the security enhancement the program offers.
“If we can do this in a rapid manner, with a minimum of
inconvenience, we should,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the
Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of America. “I’d
rather have US-VISIT than go back to the old system a picture glued
to paper that says ‘this is me.’”
By the end of 2005, the $390 million per year US-VISIT program will
be fully implemented at all 400-plus U.S. ports of entry, including
international airports, major seaports, and land crossings with
Canada and Mexico. As of this past July, about 30 million people
were enrolled in US-VISIT.
An Unwelcome Mat?
But because US-VISIT requires would-be visitors to be
fingerprinted and photographed, some privacy and business travel
advocates say the program treats people too much like petty
criminals. And, with applications for U.S. visas down significantly
since 9/11, they fear the program hurts business travel and
attendance at U.S. meetings by making the American government
appear like Big Brother to potential visitors.
“There is clear evidence that the process attendees have to go
through to attend meetings and conventions in the U.S. is
prohibiting attendance,” says Gregg H. Talley, CAE, chairman of the
Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association. “As
any entity with a high number of international guests will tell
you, attendees say it’s too complicated. They say, ‘I don’t want to
be photographed and fingerprinted, and I have to go elsewhere in my
country just to do that.’ The process is too cumbersome.”
In fact, the number of overseas arrivals to the States in 2004
fell far short of pre-9/11 levels, according to
PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Laws passed and policies implemented to
secure the nation have had unintended effects on international
travel into the U.S.,” says Bjorn Hanson, Ph.D., global industry
leader with PwC’s Hospitality & Leisure practice in New York
City. “As of March 2004, the number of overseas arrivals was still
only 71 percent of the previous peak in overseas arrivals and only
90 percent of previous peak arrivals from Canada and Mexico in
US-VISIT might be a prime contributor to this falloff in
visitation. “People are not used to having their fingerprints
taken,” says Bill Connors, CTC, executive director and chief
operating officer of the National Business Travel Association,
based in Alexandria, Va. “It raises privacy issues and rightfully
so. We need to do a better job in the country and this industry to
make people feel welcome.”
“It is a deterrent to people traveling here,” agrees John
Graham, CAE, president and CEO of the American Society of
Association Executives. “It is a problem especially for
professional societies where members are global. We should do what
is required to be careful, but these requirements are particularly
onerous and need to be modified.”
While the program has caused frustration for some, the DHS says
it should not be viewed as a barrier to coming to America.
“Certainly, we try to get travelers and stakeholders to see that
this is not just for the protection of our citizens but for them
too,” says a DHS spokesperson. “We understand there’s some mystique
around taking fingerprints. But many travelers tell us it’s not a
Furthermore, the widespread travel delays at border crossings,
seaports and airports feared at the introduction of the program
have not materialized. A recent survey by the Alexandria, Va.-based
Association of Corporate Travel Executives found that 60 percent of
its members thought neither the lines nor the wait times at U.S.
borders were too long.
The program’s value as a deterrent to terrorists seeking to
infiltrate the United States is impossible to know, but so far it
has proved to be somewhat effective as a law enforcement tool: DHS
says more than 800 people wanted for criminal or immigration
violations have been snared by US-VISIT. As of press time, however,
the country’s new virtual border has not contributed to the arrest
of one known or suspected terrorist.
WHAT TO DO?
Planners with international attendees
can take steps to ease their overseas guests’ entry into the United States. Following is some expert advice.
Give early warnings. In all event materials and on related websites, include information about obtaining a B-1 visa to the United States, and outline the fingerprinting and photography requirements of US-VISIT. “Tell them, ‘Here are the steps you will need to take, and here’s what you will need to bring,’” says Gregg H. Talley, CAE (right), chairman of the Professional Convention Management Association.
Stress that international attendees will need to begin applying for a visa and enrolling in US-VISIT at least three to four months ahead of the event date.
Publish these URLs for more information about getting into the States: www.dhs.gov/us-visit
Send personalized letters of invitation to your event, complete with detailed contact information. Often, U.S. consular officials will want such documentation before issuing visas in some non-Visa Waiver Program countries. However, invitation letters should be given only to attendees who have registered and paid the registration fee for the event. “There have been, in the past, people who wanted to gain entry to the U.S. and used conference registration to get in,” says Talley.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Academies’ International Visitors’ Office, letters of invitation should include:
" Name, dates, location and purpose of the meeting;
" Name, date of birth and passport number (if known) of the attendee;
" Information on how transportation and local expenses are to be funded;
" Information on the organization sponsoring the meeting and relationship to the attendee; and
" Name, title, contact information (phone, fax, e-mail, meeting website) of the person responsible for the meeting, in case the consular officer has further questions.
In July 2005, the U.S. Department of State opened the Business Visa Center to assist businesses in getting international visitors visas for travel to the States. Events with more than 100 foreign attendees can be registered with the State Department, which could help facilitate visa issuance. For more information call (202) 663-3198. -- B.M.L.
The Passport Makeover
It’s not only foreign nationals who are facing more high-tech
scrutiny when crossing U.S. borders. The U.S. passport which has
been called the world’s most valuable document is getting an
overhaul that will affect many Americans as well.
In late 2005, new U.S. passports will contain a radio-frequency
identification chip that electronically transmits personal data to
a remote sensor. The first recipients of the “e-passport” will be
U.S. diplomats and government employees; the general population
will be issued the RFID versions starting in 2006, as they renew
RFID technology has long been common for E-ZPass toll systems
and office “smart cards.” Now, the State Department, eager to bring
identity documents into the 21st century, has decided such
so-called “contactless” technology also is the wave of the future
at U.S. borders.
The e-passport will speed movement through ports of entry, last
longer than the old passport and have “global inter-operability,”
according to the State Department. Most importantly, say government
officials, the new passports will be much harder to forge.
A Dangerous Document?
Not surprisingly, the technologically advanced passport has set off
a storm of controversy. Critics claim its RFID technology is simply
unnecessary, and contactless chips will jeopardize the personal
security and identity of Americans who carry them. They point to
the fact that RFID readers capable of secretly gleaning information
from the new passports are commercially available.
“There is no need for RFID,” asserts Melissa Ngo, staff council
at the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information
Center. “RFID is a wireless transmission, so there is always the
possibility it can be hacked into, especially an unencrypted
transmission. It’s much more secure to have a contact card, one
that must be run through a machine for the information to be read.
That way, the data is never transmitted wirelessly to be grabbed by
The proposed passport has certainly not been popular with
business travel managers, procurement specialists and travel
service suppliers. In a survey of members of the Association of
Corporate Travel Executives, 93 percent of respondents were opposed
to RFID technology in passports.“This overwhelming majority clearly
indicates a lack of confidence in the current proposal,” says
Greeley Koch, president of ACTE. “The business community no longer
has a blind trust in fully electronic security measures.”
Privacy advocates have demanded more protections against
“skimming” (secretly reading a passport’s information from a remote
transmitter) and “cloning” (using the stolen information to create
a bogus passport). Additionally, some fear RFID could help
terrorists or thieves pick out Americans in a crowd. A few have
suggested keeping the e-passport inside a foil potato chip bag to
prevent unwanted RFID transmissions.
“I would hope they encrypt the passport’s information,” says
planner Pamela Ballinger. “The whole purpose of these things is
supposed to be to protect us.”
A white paper published by the American Civil Liberties Union,
titled “Naked Data: How the U.S. Ignored International Concerns and
Pushed for Radio Chips in Passports Without Security,” in part
concluded: “These passports would be painting giant bull’s eyes on
the backs of all who carry them.” Additionally, the ACLU fears
“construction of a global identity card that will likely influence
the creation of national identity documents and threaten to
facilitate tracking and loss of privacy around the globe.”
In response to such concerns, the State Department has
developed a passport cover with a metallic lining (such as the chip
bag could provide) that is said to block the 13.56 MHz RFID
transmissions when the passport’s cover is shut. Among assurances
the State Department gave to NBTA:
" The passport’s chip only can be read from a distance of four
inches or less, and the passport must be open.
" Ports-of-entry readers will shield against “eavesdropping” on
the transmission from the RFID chip to the reader.
" An electronic signature on each chip allows validation that
the chip’s data has not been changed.
Finally, questions have been asked of any passport’s ultimate
effectiveness in contributing to a safer America. In June,
Congress’ Government Accountability Office charged that lax
oversight at the State Department had resulted in criminals,
illegal aliens and suspected terrorists obtaining United States
passports because applications were not routinely checked against
comprehensive watch lists maintained by the government. And nothing
about the RFID passport appears to fix that security
Foreign Passport Flap
Another major change involves so-called Visa Waiver
Program countries. VWP participants such as England, France and
Japan are close U.S. allies, intimately linked in terms of trade,
travel, law enforcement and diplomatic matters. Also, to qualify
for the VWP program, countries must be politically and economically
secure, with a low perceived threat from criminals or
Visas traditionally have not been asked of nationals from these
countries, and VWP travelers to the States have been able to skip
paperwork headaches and a mandatory visit to a U.S. consulate for a
But now the program is changing considerably, in part because
terrorist threats increasingly have emerged from VWP countries in
recent years. For instance, Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” was
from London; and the recent deadly train, subway and bus bombings
in England and Spain reportedly were perpetrated by sleeper cells
in those European VWP countries.
Consequently, the U.S. government has begun to tighten
requirements for travel from VWP countries. VWP travelers now face
mandatory enrollment in US-VISIT before coming to the States.
(About 15 million VWP travelers came in 2004.) Additionally, VWP
governments must now issue passports that meet U.S. technical
standards, or their citizens could be turned away from the American
But a running controversy has emerged between the U.S.
government, foreign countries and travel advocacy groups over how
soon to mandate these passport changes. A slew of U.S. deadlines
for changes to foreign passports was pushed back finally to June 26
of this year after an outcry on the part of the American travel
industry, which fears further decline in foreign visitation.
“The machine-readable passports are in effect,” says NBTA’s
Connors. “We’ve been involved in informing our partners and
informing Congress to make sure that everyone has the technology.
Most of the world is up to speed on the machine-readable
At present, any air carrier, bus or cruise line will be fined
$3,300 per violation for transporting a visa waiver traveler to the
United States without a machine-readable passport. Also, the
passports must contain a digital photograph of the bearer, which is
considered more resistant to alteration than traditional
But now it seems machine readability was simply a warm-up
exercise for the U.S. requirement that VWP countries produce
RFID-enabled passports containing biometric identifiers. Indeed, as
U.S. citizens are issued the new passports, nationals from the 27
visa waiver countries likewise will be issued the RFID
According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, “The
electronic passport is the path to secure and streamlined travel
among visa waiver countries.” Such e-passports will “maintain and
strengthen the integrity of the visa waiver program,” he says.
Yet, no country, including the United States, seems able to
make the changes in a timely manner. The original deadline for
biometric-enabled RFID passports of Oct. 26, 2004, was first
extended for one year, to October 2005. Then it was extended again
to 2006 after several VWP countries were unable to meet the
extended deadline. (It should be noted that the United States has
not issued its own RFID passport yet.) Meanwhile, U.S. travel
industry advocates have lobbied to make certain the government
adjusts deadlines to prevent a slowdown in travel.
“Good intentions can have unintended consequences,” says Roger
Dow of the Travel Industry Association of America. “Congress wanted
to be very clear they were doing all the right things to secure the
country. It seemed like a great idea, but when you start layering
in the capabilities across 27 countries, it gets difficult.”
“On the whole passport issue there has been a lack of clarity,”
says ASAE’s John Graham. “Passports issued after the deadline dates
must have the changes, but if your passport was issued before the
deadlines it is still valid. We don’t want people to think if they
didn’t have an e-passport that they couldn’t travel. That, to us,
was the big issue. And that clarification should be made to the
traveling public and those coming to association meetings.”
“The biometric passport deadlines refer to new passports, so my
passport is good until 2006,” says Dow. “Some planners think
anybody without a biometric passport is not getting into the
country, and that is not the case.”
Screening U.S. Neighbors
Another profound issue concerning the U.S. border as it relates to
planners is the decision announced this spring that passports (U.S.
or foreign) will be required for travel between the United States
and Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico and Panama by 2008.
Presently, travel between these countries requires only a driver’s
license or birth certificate or even a simple oral declaration of
nationality. The program, called the Western Hemisphere Travel
Initiative, affects foreigners and U.S. citizens alike, since it
requires a passport for entering or re-entering the States.
“We recognize the implications this might have for industry,
business and the general public, as well as our neighboring
countries,” says Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for
consular affairs. “The advanced notice of proposed rule-making will
allow these affected publics to voice concern and provide ideas for
alternate documents acceptable under the law. The overarching need
is to implement this legal requirement in a way that strengthens
security while facilitating the movement of persons and goods.”
Indeed, the ramifications might be extreme for both event
planners and suppliers. Consider: Only about 21 percent of U.S.
citizens have a valid passport. Will U.S.-based meeting planners
still hold events in Canada or Mexico, for instance, if
participation requires a travel document that possibly 79 percent
of potential attendees do not have?
One aspect of the rule the travel industry strongly opposes is
the plan to phase in the passport requirement. First, Bermuda
citizens at the end of this year will need passports, which in 2006
will be required for travel between the United States and Canada
and Mexico at all airports and seaports; lastly, in 2008, passports
will be mandated at land crossings to Canada and Mexico from the
“It’s phased in, and we’re opposed to that,” says the NBTA’s
Connors. “If you have a meeting planned for next year in the
Caribbean, forget it. It will be a nightmare. We’re suggesting this
gets put off until the January 2008 deadline to give Americans,
Canadians and everyone else time to get passports.”
Concern already is escalating. “I have a meeting in Canada
booked for 2008,” says Pamela Ballinger. “It will fall on me to
make sure everybody is aware of the passport issue. We’ll have red
flags everywhere, on the website and in registration brochures,
saying, ‘If you’re attending the meeting, you need a
“We get a significant number of attendees from Canada,” notes
Kathleen Costello, who plans conferences as assistant director at
the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality Tourism and Sports
Management at New York University. “Now it’s not difficult for
Canadians to come. If they required that extra step of getting a
passport, we could lose attendees because of the inconvenience of
doing that. It makes it more troublesome to come.”
To allay such fears, U.S. government officials have promised to
institute “registered traveler-type” programs for those who cross
the border with great regularity or who live in border
President George W. Bush is among those questioning the sense
of the WHTI. “If people have to have a passport, it’s going to
disrupt the honest flow of traffic. I think there’s some
flexibility in the law, and that’s what we’re checking out right
now,” he said after the initiative was announced. Any change to the
requirement for passports by 2008 would require a new law to be
enacted by Congress and signed by the president.
In the final analysis, travel advocates insist, the United
States must stay open for business while securing itself from
outside threats. Alas, says Roger Dow, the country seems to be
losing ground to the rest of the world in the competition to
attract travelers and their money: “In 2005, we’re recovering to
numbers from 2000. But during the last five-year period, the number
of world travelers has increased by 75 million. So even though our
numbers are increasing, our share of the world market is shrinking.
That’s concerning to us.”
“We are not experts on terrorism and wouldn’t debate the State
Department on who is and is not allowed into the country,” says
ASAE’s Graham. “But we are experts on knowing that we want to make
it easy for people to travel to the U.S. Otherwise, we hurt