WASHINGTON (AFP) - Tourists and business people seeking visas to visit the United States could face even longer waits at already swamped US embassies if severe budget cuts kick in at the State Department.
It was increasingly apparent that no legislative solution will be ready before automatic budget cuts - the so-called sequester - kick in on Friday, forcing a wide range of government agencies to trim services.
Faced with ballooning demand, the State Department had embarked on a hiring surge to recruit more consular officers to deal with the rising volume of traffic, deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday.
But if the sequester takes effect the department will be forced to cut back its programs, including consular services, he warned.
"We've had a huge influx of hiring of new consulate officers we sent out to hotspots like India, China, Brazil, where you have lots of middle class folks who are trying to come to the US for the first time and visit and spend their money," Ventrell said earlier this week.
Some 66 million tourists visited the United States in 2012, generating a record $168 billion in revenue, up 20 percent from 2011.
Currently some 90 per cent of people seeking a visa around the world are interviewed within three weeks of applying. In China the wait time is around five days, while in Sao Paulo, Brazil it was reduced from 140 days to just two.
Demand is rising though - in China in the fiscal year 2010 some 650,000 visa interviews were carried out, but that had almost doubled to 1.2 million in 2012. In Brazil visas interviews also leaped from 540,000 in 2010 to over a million in 2012.
"Sequestration threatens all of our operations because it cuts across the board," Ventrell said Thursday.
"We estimate that for every 65 visitors to the US, that creates one American job." President Barack Obama on Thursday accused Republican rivals of threatening the fragile US economic recovery by failing to move forward on his deficit reduction plan before the severe budget cuts kick in.
At the height of an intense Washington budget showdown, Republicans and Democrats failed to advance either of two bills in the Senate aimed at averting the $85 billion in cuts slated for this year.