The U.S. sent 610,000 US tourists to visit Israel in 2012 and ranked as the top sending country to Israel. Israel, in turn, was ranked as fifteenth as a sending country to the U.S. 303,000 Israeli tourists entered the U.S. in 2011.
If the U.S. had proportionately sent as many tourists to Israel as the estimated four percent of the Israeli population who visited in the U.S. then Israel would have received approximately 12 million U.S. visitors last year. Absorbing 12 million American tourists, even by Israel’s high standards of hospitality, would have strained Israel’s estimated 8 million residents.
One thing that would not have been strained is Israel’s visa lines for Americans, as there are none. Americans are waived the requirement of applying for a visitor’s visa to enter Israel.
Not so for Israelis, who are required to apply for U.S. visas through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. The U.S. visa process is onerous. It takes time to fill in the paperwork, wait in line to submit the application, undergo a personal interview with a consular official and wait for approval. Obtaining a U.S. visa may take from one to several days. Quite apart from the visa fees, each year this process of obtaining a U.S. visa, which at minimum takes one workday, costs an aggregate of 838 person-years to Israelis securing U.S. visas.
Business travel by Israelis to the U.S. declined in number by 6 percent, or 18,000 visits in 2011. A decline of an estimated 80 business visits each workday by Israelis to the U.S. is worrisome. Beneficial commerce opportunities to both countries are likely lost because of the time and cost of obtaining a U.S. visa.
There are several bills in the U.S. Congress currently to make Israel eligible as a Visa Waiver country. Israel currently doesn’t qualify because of a 3 percent threshold of rejected visa applicants, which Israel exceeds.
In response to a query about the status of the Visa Waiver bills U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) wrote:
The three bills (S. 462, S. 266, and H.R. 300) in question are virtually identical with regard to Israel: all exempt Israel from the 3% requirement rate and all add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program when it meets the other requirements of the program. …Hungary, Lithuania, and Latvia had a higher visa refusal rates than Israel when were admitted into the Visa Waiver Program in 2008.
Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes that the Israeli government is resistant to visa waivers for it’s citizens:
A legislative effort led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to enable Israelis to enter the United States without visas may be stymied by the government – Israel’s government.
The hitch is Israel’s inability or unwillingness to fully reciprocate, something required for visa-free travel to the United States. Israel, citing security concerns, insists on the right to refuse entry to some U.S. citizens.
If Israel is not given entry to the U.S. Visa Waiver program, it may be the first “pro-Israel” legislation in the U.S. Congress which may fail to pass introduced in the past decade.