Washington D.C. – A looming visa processing backlog could sideline millions of international football fans from attending the 2026 FIFA World Cup in the United States, according to industry leaders gathered at the U.S. Travel Association’s Destination Capitol Hill conference.

“The World Cup is just over two years away,” warned Megan Ryburn, Director of External Affairs for the Louisiana Travel Association. “For countries like Colombia, where the current visitor visa wait time is a staggering 725 days, this presents a serious problem.”

The U.S., co-hosting the tournament with Canada and Mexico, anticipates significant visitor traffic from these nations. With Dallas, Atlanta, New York, and nine other cities slated to host matches, efficient visa processing is crucial.

“Historically, most international World Cup attendees return home after the games,” explained Tori Barnes, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy for the U.S. Travel Association. However, lengthy wait times, particularly for first-time applicants from Colombia, India, and Mexico, pose a significant threat to potential ticket holders.

Julie Stufft, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services, confirmed wait times exceeding hundreds of days are expected to persist throughout 2024 for these key source markets. The U.S. Travel Association estimates the average wait time for these countries even surpasses 400 days. While the State Department acknowledges the issue and is actively working on reducing wait times, the clock is ticking for aspiring World Cup attendees.

Beyond Visas: Streamlining Airport Customs and Funding Tourism Initiatives

Travel industry representatives also highlighted the need for improved airport customs efficiency and the passage of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. Streamlining customs procedures will enhance the overall visitor experience, while the FAA bill is vital for maintaining a healthy travel infrastructure.

“The FAA reauthorization is critical,” emphasized Kate Baumgartner, Strategist at Travel Oregon. “Congress needs to act swiftly to pass the bill by May 8th to avoid disruptions.”

Funding the New Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Travel and Tourism

Another pressing concern raised during the conference was securing consistent funding for the newly established Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Travel and Tourism. While Congress recently allocated $3.5 million for the position in the 2024 fiscal year, the role remains unfilled.

“The U.S. stands alone among G-20 nations in lacking a dedicated federal agency or cabinet-level official overseeing travel policy,” stated Ryburn. “This position is crucial in bridging the gap between state-level tourism priorities and federal policymakers.”

Uncertainty Looms as Election Year Approaches

Industry experts also expressed concerns surrounding the future of tourism policy after the 2024 presidential election and potential legislative gridlock leading up to it.

“Historically, legislative activity tends to slow down in Washington D.C. during election years,” noted Amir Eylon, CEO of Longwoods International. “This underscores the urgency of addressing critical issues like the FAA reauthorization, especially during the spring and summer months.”

Visa processing delays, coupled with potential legislative roadblocks, create a significant hurdle for international football fans eager to experience the 2026 World Cup in the U.S. As the clock continues to tick, industry leaders and policymakers must work together to ensure a smooth and welcoming experience for all visitors.

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