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Brian McInerney has been a Foreign Service Officer—or "U.S. diplomat"—for more than 20 years. From Ireland, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Mexico and Iraq, McInerney has served as a Consular official in five countries spanning four continents.

Throughout his career managing consular sections, McInerney has managed the full spectrum of issues tied to facilitating safe, legitimate travel for business and tourism. While he sometimes helped Americans abroad, McInerney's bread and butter has been handling visa issues. In his current role, McInerney oversees field operations for worldwide visa services, formulating and implementing new and existing laws, regulations, policies and procedures tied to the worldwide adjudication of visas.

Groups Today sat down with McInerney to learn more about the current state of visas and the travel industry.

What are the most interesting changes you've experienced related to visas and the travel industry?
The change that's happening right now. In the past, I felt like we had to innovate out of necessity because of budget cuts, but now we're innovating because of the built-up demand, and we're given the resources and room to be innovative. We can do things now we could not have thought possible even a few short years ago.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges currently facing visas and the travel industry?
Even with our list of 2022 accomplishments, challenges remain. We recognize some prospective applicants are still facing extended interview appointment wait times. We are working to reduce these wait times, we won't rest until we are done, and we are optimistic that the positive trends begun in 2022 will continue.

Our organization embraced technology, innovation and change—something the government rarely gets credit for—in order to return our consular sections overseas to their full working capacity. Our intention is to improve our organization, not simply return to the way things were before the pandemic.

What opportunities do you see for the travel industry as it relates to visas?
Let's face it—visa requirements are detailed and complicated, and what I've found to be important when working with the travel industry is to ensure the Bureau of Consular Affairs provides easy-to-understand information, instructions and statistics on visas to help the industry understand the state of play and, in turn, educate travelers.

For those who need interviews, the travel industry can play an important role in sharing information about the application process, promoting U.S. embassy instructional websites and their content, and helping applicants avoid fraud and understand our processes.

The focus on visa interview wait times is a good example. Long wait times do not mean that people are not being issued visas. They simply reflect an extremely high level of demand. In fact, in several countries with longer wait times, including Mexico and Brazil, we issued more visitor visas in 2022 than we did in 2019.

Only seven of the top 20 inbound nationalities require a U.S. visitor visa. Putting that into global context, this means the overwhelming majority of visitors—more than 90%—have not required a visa interview or renewal in the year before their travel to the U.S. So people are getting visas and millions of people have visas: We estimate there are more than 56 million valid visitor visas in circulation worldwide. And in any given year, most international visitors enter the U.S. without a visa—they come from Canada and the 40 countries part of the Visa Waiver Program. Or, they travel on previously issued visas, since most B1/B2 visas for visitors are valid for 10 years with multiple entries. That means those potential visitors can come to the U.S. for vacation whenever they want.

What's your advice for those in the travel industry as it relates to visas?
I want the travel industry to know that we are partners, with several shared priorities. We in the Visa Office recently created an "industry liaison" position to engage specifically with businesses as they return to pre-pandemic operations. We welcome feedback and are constantly looking to expand our efficiencies as we promote legitimate travel to the U.S. for business or leisure. We are happy to meet you all where you are to explain what we are doing.

Putting those accomplishments into the context of most international visitors not needing a U.S. visa, I'd like to see the travel industry helping those who do need visas to learn about the application process, plan ahead, and ensure they have everything they need for their application to be complete.

To facilitate this partnership, we work constantly to improve our processes and share information, which is why we expanded an interview wait times tool on our website to include much more detailed information and additional visa categories (tinyurl.com/TravelVisaInfo) as well as to highlight global wait times (tinyurl.com/GlobalVisaWaitTimes).

See travel.state.gov for more.

Edited by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for Groups Today.

This article originally appeared in the Mar/Apr '23 issue of Groups Today.

 

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