Summit County, Breckenridge ski tourism might benefit from smarter visa laws
Visas by the numbers
For many international tourists, vacation plans begin with securing a visa. But travel visas can be wildly expensive and hard to obtain. Here’s how adding six countries – Brazil, Hong Kong, Turkey, Israel, South Africa and Poland – to the U.S. Department of State’s Visa Waiver Program will impact tourism over five years.
600,000 – New travelers who visit in the first year
1.7 million – New travelers who visit over five years
16.4 percent – Average increase in new traveler visits over five years
$7.66 billion – Amount spent by new travelers over five years
50,000 – New U.S. tourism jobs created over five years
Source: “Passport to Future Economic Growth” study by Partnership for a New American Economy
For international tourists, a weeklong ski vacation to Breckenridge begins months or even years before they set skis to snow.
Take a family from Brazil: Before booking a room on Ski Hill Road, everyone in the family must first be approved for a nonimmigrant visa, commonly known as a tourist visa. Since Brazil isn’t one of the 38 countries currently on the Visa Waiver Program, the federal program that lets qualified travelers visit the U.S. for 90 days without a visa, the family must meet a laundry list of requirements.
There’s an online application, mandatory fingerprinting and an in-person interview at the nearest U.S. consulate — sometimes found hundreds of miles away in a capital city — not to mention the $160 per person fee.
Then, the Brazilian family waits for approval and hopes for the best. It’s a major investment to simply entertain visiting the U.S., even for a relatively short ski trip, yet experts say international tourists are still willing to enter the logistical fray.
“People across the world look at the U.S. as an icon,” said Mary Motsenbocker, president of International Tourism Marketing in Denver. “People want to experience the Western culture, and even in countries that currently don’t have the Visa Waiver Program, the desire is still there.”
A recent study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that expanding the federal Visa Waiver Program to six locations could boost U.S. tourism spending by $7.66 billion over five years. The study, released in late 2014 and titled “Passport to Future Economic Growth,” also found that smarter, more inviting visa laws could bring 1.7 million new travelers to the states, all while creating nearly 50,000 jobs in the tourism sector.
The study did not include J-1 visas, the documents held by the majority of seasonal workers from Australia, Britain, Argentina and other countries.
For Motsenbocker, a reformed visa program is a promising tool for the U.S. She sees the entire nation as a single attraction, not dozens of smaller attractions split by region and state.
“It’s one of the most basic and vital aspects of the tourism industry,” Motsenbocker said. “What everyone in the Western U.S. and especially Colorado needs to realize is that we aren’t competitors. We need to work as a team, and our competitors are spread across the global marketplace.”
Tom Foley, the director of operations at Denver-based analytics firm DestiMetrics, agrees with Motsenbocker. He gives the example of India, which recently waived its visa wait times to encourage tourism and leisure travel with a sluggish global economy.
“When we think about our product in the international marketplace, we think of it as an export,” Foley said of the ski industry. “As we look to a Euro that’s struggling and continues to struggle, the relative cost of the ski vacation in North American and Colorado resorts is more expensive than a lot of options that don’t require boarding a plane. By easing visa regulations, it will likely offset the negative international impact of the strong U.S. economy.”
BUSY TOURISM MARKET
While the study doesn’t look at Colorado individually, new visa laws could dramatically affect Rocky Mountain resort visits. Summit County doesn’t attract as many destination guests as neighbors like Vail and Aspen, but Dillon Mayor Kevin Burns believes any federal policy change could have a ripple effect across the U.S. and into Summit.
“Tourism is a critical component of our economy,” Burns said. “This new study illustrates how small changes in the tourist visa laws would lead to significant growth in the tourism industry, creating a positive impact on our economy.”
And the Colorado tourism market is already growing at a steady clip. Over the past decade, overnight stays in Colorado have gradually increased, even as the economy has waxed and waned.
In 2013, a study from the Colorado Tourism office found that 15.1 million visitors came to the state and spent $10.4 billion — both all-time records. Of those visitors, nearly 900,000 stayed overnight at resorts strewn across the state. The number of overnight visitors has increased at a steady clip annually since 2006.
In the same period, Rocky Mountain resorts have seen a similar uptick in international tourism, particularly from South American and Mexican markets. Bruce Horii, the general manager at Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge, says his resort has enjoyed a noticeable increase in guests from Mexico and Brazil, along with historically consistent traffic from the United Kingdom. U.K. travelers are part of the waiver program, while Mexican travelers must still apply for nonimmigrant visas.
“I’m not saying free reign, but the more red tape involved with coming here, the less likely we are to see international business,” Horii said of the proposed changes to the waiver program. “Those customers tend to stay longer and spend more per person, both for retail and restaurants. That’s a huge takeaway from the international market.”
For the Outlets at Silverthorne, international visits are invaluable. Although the individual tenants don’t track where customers come from, the Outlets marketing and tourism manager Anthony Benz has noticed the same habits as Horii.
Benz claims shoppers from South America easily account for the majority of international business, followed by an increasing number of customers from Asia and Canada.
“Since many tourists aren’t coming from a ski background or only skiing once a year, they spend lots of time at the Outlets,” Benz said. “They tend to extend their stays by a few days, especially if they have the option to. It’s a great place to come when their bones are sore after a few days of skiing.”
Part of the appeal is in selection. Unlike small, one-of-a-kind shops, where international customers tend to browse rather than buy, Benz claims big-name tenants like Tommy Hilfiger and American Eagle are much more enticing. And at the Outlets, international shoppers pay a fraction of the inflated cost in their home countries.
“We don’t want to lease a tiny store that will only last a month and disappear,” Benz said. “We like to have the big names and those anchors, and that adds sustainability for our center.”
And, as Foley from DestiMetrics points out, cost is key for international travelers. When paired with a more appealing visa program, the family from Brazil may take the plunge on a Breck ski vacation — if they don’t first spend their money elsewhere.
“We know that skiers are more affluent than the general population,” Foley said. “We have a resilient customer base, and we know there’s a strong international customer base. Despite the fact they’re more affluent, they’re still economically biased toward saving money. It’s how they become successful.”
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