U.S. slashes visa wait times in Brazil

South Florida Sun Sentinnel


By Doreen Hemlock

Polish up on your Portuguese: More high-spending Brazilians are visiting South Florida, now that it takes weeks instead of months to get their U.S. visa applications.

The U.S. State Department has added staff at U.S. consulates across Brazil, cutting the average wait times for interviews for U.S. visa applications to less than two weeks in most Brazilian cities. The wait often topped 100 days in 2010, discouraging some travelers, officials said.

South Florida”s tourism leaders have been lobbying for the extra staff, eager to attract more Brazilians, who tend to stay longer, shop more and spend more than other visitors to the area.

Even with the visa backlog, Brazilians last year became the second largest group of international visitors to Florida, trailing only Canadians. More than 1.4 million Brazilians visited the state, up a whopping 38 percent from the previous year. They spent more than $2.2 billion in Florida, up by 50 percent from a year earlier, according to the state”s tourism marketing agency Visit Florida.

This year, the number of Brazilians visiting Florida is expected to rise by double-digits again, thanks to the faster visa processing and steady growth in Brazil, travel leaders said. Brazil — with nearly 200 million residents — recently overtook the United Kingdom to become the world”s sixth largest economy.

Miami serves as the top U.S. gateway for Brazilian travelers. Last year, Brazilian visitors spent more than $1 billion in Miami-Dade County, the first international group to do so. Broward County estimates 450,000 Brazilian visitors came north to stay overnight in the county, up 50 percent from the year before.

To tap that growing market, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau is looking to hire its first representative based in Brazil to promote tourism to Broward County, said Bureau President Nicki Grossman. “What we”ve done before was out of our Fort Lauderdale office,” she said.

Palm Beach County”s tourism bureau also is boosting Brazil promotions from its West Palm Beach office this year, taking part in more trade shows, said Bureau President Jorge Pesquera.

Longer-term, South Florida travel leaders want Brazil added to the list of countries whose citizens don”t need visas to visit the United States. Today, 36 countries enjoy visa-waiver status, including Japan, Germany and Australia. To gain that designation, countries must meet certain U.S. standards, such as low refusal rates for travel visa applications at U.S. consulates and tight cooperation on border control.

Brazilian tourism to the United States likely would double, if South America”s largest country enters the visa-waiver program, according to Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau officials. The Miami bureau has maintained a representative in Brazil for more than 20 years to develop that travel business.

President Barack Obama announced the extra visa-processing staff in Brazil as part of a broader plan unveiled in January to make the United States the world”s top tourist destination. South Florida depends on international visitors more than any other area in the country.

dhemlock@tribune.com,             305-810-5009

International tourism to Florida in 2011

Country, Number of visitors, spending

Canada, 3.29 million, $3.98 billion

Brazil, 1.46 million, $2.24 billion

United Kingdom, 1.28 million, $1 billion

Mexico, 0.38 million, $0.32 billion

Argentina, 0.37 million, $0.23 billion

Venezuela, 0.36 million, $0.36 billion

Germany, 0.34 million, $0.28 billion

France, 0.30 million, $0.30 billion

Colombia, 0.30 million, $0.30 billion

Total international, 12.61 million, $14.04 billion

Source: Visit Florida

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