By Jill Dougherty
Demand for visas to visit the United States is growing, but getting one, for many foreigners, has sometimes meant frustratingly long waits for interviews and processing. The State Department struggled to keep up, but this year it took steps to improve.
Now, the department says, it has chalked up some victories.
Consular officers in China - at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and consulates general in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang - just hit the million mark, processing more than 1 million non-immigrant visa applications so far in fiscal year 2012, while reducing the wait time for a visa interview appointment to approximately one week.
On Thursday, when CNN clicked on the "Visa Wait Time" page at travel.state.gov, the wait in Beijing was three days.
The million visas total 43% more than the same period last fiscal year, when the State Department processed just more than 675,000 visa applications from Chinese citizens.
The State Department says it increased staff, improved work flow, implemented a pilot program to waive the in-person interview requirement in certain instances, and made some other changes in procedures "without compromising border security."
Demand for U.S. visas also is growing in Brazil. There, consular staff processed almost 44% more visa applications in fiscal year 2012 than the same period last year. In Mexico they completed 36% more applications.
China and Mexico are the only two U.S. Missions that process more than 1 million visa applications each year, but the State Department says Brazil is on track to become the third.
Getting more visas into the hands of international tourists and students means money for the U.S. tourism industry. The White House says that last year, international spending on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services set a record of $153 billion, an 8.1% increase from 2010.