The number of foreign visitors, like those who fly to...

The number of foreign visitors, like those who fly to Las Vegas, above, has declined by the millions under post-9/11 security. The travel and tourism industry is asking for help from Congress, claiming the decline has added up to $859 billion in untapped revenue. (Dec. 13, 2011) Credit: AP

Agustina Ocampo is the kind of foreign traveler businesses salivate over.

The 22-year-old Argentine recently dropped more than $5,000 on food, hotels and clothes in Las Vegas during a trip that also took her to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and Seattle's Space Needle. But she doubts she will return soon.

"It is a little bit of a headache," said Ocampo, a student who waited months to find out whether her tourist visa application would be approved.

More than a decade after the federal government strengthened travel requirements after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many foreign visitors say getting a temporary visa remains a daunting and sometimes insurmountable hurdle.

The tourism industry hopes to change that with a campaign to persuade Congress to overhaul the State Department's tourist visa application process.

"After 9/11, we were all shaken and there was a real concern for security, and I still think that concern exists," said Jim Evans, a former hotel chain chief executive heading a national effort to promote foreign travel to the United States. Still, he said, the United States needs "to be more cognizant of the importance of every single traveler."

Tourism leaders said the decline in foreign visitors over the past decade is costing American businesses and workers $859 billion in untapped revenue and at least half a million potential jobs at a time when the slowly recovering economy needs both.

The State Department has beefed up tourist services in recent years, but "security is job one for us," said Edward Ramotowski, managing director of the department's visa services. "The reason we have a visa system is to enforce the immigration laws of the United States."

Anti-immigration proponents argue travel to the United States is already too accessible.

"Everybody would like to find a way to admit as many people as possible to visit here, providing that they visit and then go home," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration group based in Washington, D.C.

Nearly 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas were issued in 2001, compared with fewer than 6.5 million in 2010.

Most foreign visitors enter through the country's visa waiver program, which allows travelers from 36 nations with good relationships with the United States to temporarily visit without a visa. Travel proponents want to add nations whose residents are unlikely to illegally move here, including Argentina, Brazil, Poland and Taiwan.

The proposed visa overhaul has largely been driven by the U.S. Travel Association, the tourism industry's lobbying giant, and has been endorsed by business titans such as the National Retail Federation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

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