Recently the subject came up again at a presentation on the newly formed Brand USA (aka DiscoverAmerica) for members of the British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW). A long list of complaints about the system from travel writers, many of whom revealed that they have crossed the USA off their list of destinations to visit and know of others who have done the same.
It started at the height of ‘Mcarthyism‘ in the early 1950s when ‘reds were under every bed’. In those days journalists were viewed with great suspicion because they asked questions,
travelled, had highly placed contacts, met influential people, and were themselves influential. So legislation requiring visiting foreign journalists to apply for a special visa probably made sense back then, when America was mixing it with the Russians and Chinese in Korea, and trying to keep its nuclear and space race secrets from enquiring minds armed with cameras the size of bricks and bakerlite telephones that needed an operator to connect an international call.
Over the decades though, as the new jet age brought tourists and business travellers in large numbers and the Cold War receded, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) relaxed their interpretation of the law and journalists, from friendly countries at least, generally came and went on the new Visa-Waiver programmes along with everyone else. Most countries who had similar specialist visa requirements for journalists dropped them, leaving just the totalitarian and/or paranoid countries like North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America to guard their borders against Tintin.
Then came 9/11 and the laissez-faire INS was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security, who with a zeal, set about re-installing all of the country’s security fences, including the old Cold War I-visa.
The effect was immediate and ridiculous.
Whole press trips were rounded up on landing and sent back on the next flight. Entertainment journalist, Sue Smethurst, arriving in Los Angeles (LAX) to interview Olivia Newton John was ignominiously returned to Australia. Indian journalists visiting the US at the invitation of US Government departments and other agencies were being issued business (B-1) visas by the American embassy’s consular office in India, and then being detained on landing for not having an I-visa. In one celebrated case, Guardian journalist, Elena Lappin, was handcuffed at LAX, body searched, thrown into a cell, and deported 28 hrs later for entering on a visa Waiver form.
And travel media have been affected just as badly if not more so – we travel more. At the recent BGTW meeting, former Travel Trade Gazette features editor, Peter Ellegard, talked about the journalist he sent to Atlanta to cover a new tourism project, only to have her sent straight back. And there were plenty of similar tales from other BGTW travel writers present, including Travel Channel TV editor, Petra Shepherd who talked about the hideous complexity of getting I-visas at short notice for whole film crews.
For staff or regularly commissioned journalists on mainstream publications, getting into the USA hasn’t been easy. If you are
For foreign freelance travel writers arriving in the USA the last decade has meant ‘dancing on the head of a pin’ at the immigration desk because trying to secure an I-visa for just one commission is too time consuming and prohibitively expensive, even if it seems on the face of it to be a strong commission.
Guidebook writer, Melissa Shales, recounted how two years ago she was invited to attend Pow Pow, the huge (5,000+ attendees) annual USA tourism trade show. She was invited as the (then) Chair of the BGTW, but she also had secured a commission. When she tried to get an I-visa, the man in the Scottish call centre to which the visa application 1st-point-of-contact had been outsourced, told her the commission wasn’t good enough to secure a visa interview at the embassy.
Nobody should be denied an interview and certainly not by somebody who has nothing to do with US immigration, the whole concept is not fit for purpose. The I-visa is a serious thing and so the US officials take it seriously because it’s a bit like a mini Green Card. It gives you the right to live & work in the USA for a year, which you can then extend. Handy for a BBC political correspondent newly appointed to the Washington bureau, but for 99% of journalists visiting for a few days or weeks it’s complete overkill!
Perhaps more importantly, in that same decade the media world changed.
Bloggers have replaced traditional journalists and the influence of the former media companies, whose journalists supposedly needed such careful scrutiny, is waning fast, rendering the whole I-visa system impotent and irrelevant. America’s borders are porous to professional, semi and non-professional bloggers alike. They pour in from the 27 visa waiver countries as holidaying ‘programmers’, ‘social media marketers’ and ‘copy writers’, because these days freelance travel writers/bloggers are multi-role; earning their money as speakers, consultants, artists, and writers at the same time.
The only time they have to ‘dance on the head of a pin’ as they breeze through US Immigration is when they are on a group press/blog trip or attending a tourism or blogger convention. The totally universal advice in frequent discussion threads between bloggers on social media sites on the subject of US Immigration is NEVER mention hosts, sponsors, blogs or anything non-vacational, and if your camera equipment is a bit bulky, pass yourself
So, you have to ask: what is the point of it? Why are foreign media representatives the ONLY professionals singled out, in red bold print, in the State Dept’s guidelines on Visa Waiver? Why should foreign bloggers and influencers courted and hosted by NASA, have to pretend they are on holiday when passing through US Immigration?
Gerry Boyle, his colleague Sarah Barnett, Brand USA’s PR & Communications Director in the UK, and Jonathan Sloan from travel PR firm, Hills Balfour, who represent a number of US states and tourist offices, all say that the situation has improved in recent years and there is a little more flexibility in the processing of I-visas. They have to work closely with the embassy, especially when it comes to hosting individual travel writers and their own group press trips into the USA, which often means overseeing and fast-tracking applications. They say they are keen to do the same for independent travel writers and bloggers in order to smooth the path.
Jen Kane, Commercial Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in London, agrees that it is not as rigid as it has been and says that US Immigration is aware of the difficulties and is keen to listen to suggestions on ways to improve the I-visa system.
Here’s one. Ditch it!
Ski journalist, former travel editor and current Chairman of the BGTW spoke for many present at this week’s meeting when he snarled:
It’s absurd! It’s probably easier for me to enter the USA as an arms trader than as a travel journalist writing about the ski slopes of Aspen!
Alarmed by the numbers of foreign journalists being handcuffed and deported back in 2004 the American Society of Newspaper Editors described the retention of the old I-visa policy as “anathema”, and along with the Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, called for it to be ended.
Wait. Let me highlight part of that sentence again: Back in 2004.
In a few months it will be 2013. If the USA is serious about promoting itself and its tourism offering to the outside world, then the moment, not just to ease but to end this I-visa farce is long overdue. Don’t you think?’
Image by Katie@!