When he goes to events, Miami-Dade tourism chief Bill Talbert doesn’t miss an opportunity to sport a button that reads “VISA WAIVER = JOBS.’’
Working on a waiver for Brazilians that would allow them to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa has become a mission for the president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Talbert, who heads the Brazil Committee of the U.S. Travel Association, has been pushing for the waiver for the past few years, but now it appears it could become a reality.
During U.S. Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s visit to Brasilia earlier this month, she and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota agreed to set up a working group to study the elimination of visa requirements for travelers from the two countries. The first meeting of the group is expected in November.
“The push for a Brazil visa waiver is picking up steam. The signs are very good,’’ said Talbert. “Miami’s business community has been behind this for several years. We’re all talking about the jobs — and even more jobs would come with more Brazilian visitors.’’
Brazilians travelers to the United States have more than doubled since 2005, and Miami has been a chief beneficiary with more than 634,000 Brazilian visitors who spent $1.345 billion last year. Some 1.5 million Brazilians visited the United States last year and by 2016 the Department of Commerce estimates that number will climb to 2.8 million.
Thirty-six countries — including most European nations as well as countries such as Brunei, Australia and South Korea — qualify, but not a single country in Latin American enjoys such status.
If Brazil were to get a visa waiver program, Talbert says Brazilian tourism operators have told him they expect the number of Brazilians visiting Miami-Dade to double within a year. And he said, using a U.S. Travel multiplier that would result in 14,000 new jobs for Miami-Dade.
Countries admitted to the visa waiver program must meet various security criteria, including having enhanced law enforcement and security-related data sharing with the United States.
Even before the news about the working group, the United States has been taking steps to speed up the processing of U.S. visas for Brazilians.
It used to be an ordeal to get a U.S. visa, taking more than 100 days just to get an appointment at a U.S. consulate in Brazil. And there are only four consulates in the country — Brasilia, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo — meaning some Brazilians had to travel several hundred miles for an appointment in a country that is larger than the continental United States.
To speed up the process, the United States announced in April that it intended to invest $40 million in its current consular facilities, double consular staff over the next year and streamline visa processing procedures. Between August and December last year, the Department of State transferred 82 temporary duty officers to Brazil to deal with the backlog and they issued more than 135,000 visas.
The result: The U.S. Travel Association says there’s been a 58 percent increase in visa processing since last year. In mid-July, the waiting time for an appointment was down to two days in Sao Paulo and Recife and one day in Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.
The U.S. also announced it was opening two new consulates in Belo Horizonte and Port Alegre in southern Brazil.
Talbert points out that a visa waiver “doesn’t mean you jump on a plane and come here.’’ Under the program, potential travelers must go online and apply. If they don’t pose any security or law enforcement risks, they are usually approved for travel within seconds of submitting an application.
Cost of the online process is $14 versus $140 that it currently costs for a U.S. visa.
Generally, when a country grants visa waiver status to a country it reciprocates. “Given the fact that they have the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016) coming up, it’s in Brazil’s interest to make it easier for Americans to get there,’’ Talbert said.