Statement of Introduction on Modernizing Travel to the Marianas Act of 2017
Today I reintroduce legislation to authorize and establish an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) for the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program, and direct revenue from the established system to fund CBP operations and staffing needs for ports of entry in Guam and the CNMI.
The regional Guam-CNMI VWP recognizes Guam’s unique location in Asia, and the need to be more competitive for tourists from other Asian nations. With Guam’s primary source of economic revenue being tourism from Asia, my legislation would address several issues that have hampered our visitor industry and that continue to cost CBP millions of dollars annually in processing costs. The majority of foreign arrivals at Guam International Airport are those traveling under the Guam-CNMI VWP, and long immigration lines are a recurring issue due to limited staffing capacity when arrivals peak at Guam International Airport. At their peak—sometimes 1,200 passengers arrive when multiple flights arrive nearly simultaneously—the wait times at immigration can be as long as two and a half hours.
I recognize that there are complaints about long wait lines at other international ports of entry. However, the long wait-times have caused harm to Guam’s reputation in our primary visitor markets of Japan and South Korea. In fact, Japan television shows and radio programs have mocked the long lines and wait times at Guam International Airport, which has negatively impacted Guam’s standing as a family-friendly destination for our Asian allies. The flight from Japan or South Korea is a little over three hours and, sadly, some of these visitors have waited about as long, or at times longer, in line than it takes to travel from their home country to Guam. That is unacceptable and runs counter to the previous Administration’s goal of improving the arrivals process for international travelers arriving in the United States, as outlined in a memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies on May 22, 2014. My legislation would work to address the problems that are occurring with long wait times at our respective ports of entry. Tourism is critical to the economies of the region, and we cannot let an antiquated visitor entry system and inadequate staffing harm our economy.
Establishing an ESTA specific to the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program would help to address several issues faced by visitors arriving at Guam International Airport. First, the current process relies on a paper-based system which is cumbersome and only adds to the delays when arriving. The bill would allow CBP to automate that process and, as a result, save an estimated $4 million annually that is used by CBP to process and file the paper forms. This is a common sense reform that will save the federal government money and improve the customer experience at Guam International Airport and ports of entry in the CNMI.
Admittedly, CBP has the authority to create an ESTA system for the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program; however, they do not have the authority to direct revenues collected from this automated process towards staffing at ports of entry in Guam and CNMI. As such, it is the consensus of tourism industry leaders and other stakeholders that there is an ultimate need for this legislation. I am informed that staffing has not increased in Guam since after the 9/11 attacks. The CBP staffing pattern was sufficient, but as the number of tourists grows on Guam the lines have also grown and the staffing has not kept up with demand. Making the visitor entry process into ports of entry in Guam and CNMI electronic is part of the solution, but additional staffing is still required especially since nearly 50% of our visitors are first-time visitors and cannot avail themselves of Automated Passport Control (APC) systems.
I am proud of the innovative programming that brings people from all over the world to Guam. For example last year, Guam hosted the Festival of the Pacific Arts (FestPac) a quadrennial cultural event for island nations in the Pacific, which is the largest gathering for Pacific peoples to unite and strengthen our cultural ties. Over 12,000 visitors, cultural performers, and native artists came to Guam to participate in FestPac, and I appreciated the commitment of former Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske to ensure there was adequate staffing at Guam International Airport. But that additional staffing was accomplished by approving extra overtime for employees which is a costly endeavor. Events like FestPac show the maturation and growth of Guam’s tourism industry. Improving the processes and capabilities of our ports of entry to ensure a pleasant experience for our visitors is a top priority, and the solutions must be long-standing and sustainable. We cannot simply rely on overtime of employees to meet the current and emerging demands at our main international port of entry.
An ESTA for the Guam-CNMI Visa Waiver Program is an innovative, sustainable, common-sense, and cost-saving technological solution that would save the federal government millions, improve the visitor experience for our tourists, and increase resources to improve CBP capabilities by freeing up important personnel capacity to effectively monitor real threats to our national security. An electronic system for travel authorization would ultimately modernize and improve a Visa Waiver Program that continues to benefit the people of Guam and CNMI. My bill would help ensure that federal policy enhances economic opportunities and development in our region instead of being an impediment.