Entry Woes

How tighter passport and visa restrictions are affecting meetings

Pamela Ballinger, CMP

“The visa issue is very restricting,”
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 Americans alike.
    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 meeting planners.
    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 find out.

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 outright.

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 Netherlands
New Zealand
San Marino
United Kingdom

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 the world.
    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 biometric measurements.
    “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 scans.”
    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 January 2001.”
    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 big deal.”
    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.

Gregg Talley, CAEPlanners 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; www.unitedstatesvisas.gov; travel.state.gov.
    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 expired documents.
    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 unauthorized people.”
    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 deficiency.

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 terrorists.
    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 visa interview.
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 border.
    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 issue.”
    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 photographs.
    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 documents.
    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 States. 
    “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 passport’.”
    “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 communities.
    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.

Friendlier Frontiers
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 ourselves.”