Visa vise tightens

Int'l exex, artists face tough new regs

On top of the stringent visa regulations put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, international entertainment execs and performers will now face additional roadblocks.

Starting today, non-immigrant U.S. visitors are required to have an in-person interview at an American consulate prior to their trips Stateside. And beginning in October, visitors from the 27 visa waiver countries (most are in Western Europe) must have machine-readable passports — which can take several weeks to obtain. Both measures are causing backlogs of as long as six months for appointments with American officials.

A number of the approximately 8 million people each year whom this will affect are musicians and performers. That mean more headaches and costs for concert programmers and bookers from Manhattan to Hollywood, and they’re not happy.

Robert Browning, exec and artistic director of Gotham’s World Music Institute, which presents about 60 concerts each year at Carnegie Hall, City Center and Symphony Space, is non-plussed about the new requirements.

“It’s going to mean massively increased costs,” he said.

Case in point is an annual flamenco festival, for which Browning has already gone through the rigmarole. “We had to transport 40, 50 artists from the south of Spain up to Madrid, put them in a hotel overnight because the U.S. consulate’s hours are between 9 and 11 a.m.”

That travel and accommodations added between $10,000 and $20,000 to the costs of the festival — in addition to the approximately $1,000 per artist for premium visa processing fees, Browning said.

So far this year WMI has cut the number of international artists it’s brought into the U.S. by 15%. “Many presenters across the country have probably cut by 50%,” Browning said. “The number of artists visiting the U.S. will decrease this year and even more thereafter.”

Laura Connelly-Schneider, program manager for jazz and world music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said the new visa hurdles would absolutely affect programming.

“If there’s any sense of someone coming from a country that might be problematic, I’ll think twice,” she said. “I can’t afford to have people drop out for the Hollywood Bowl. It’s hard to find a replacement at the last minute.”

She speaks from experience. Recently, the Egyptian-Moroccan crooner Natacha Atlas and the Cuban performer Chucho Valdes both cancelled acts because of visa snafus.

They’re hardly the only ones. From Welsh harpists to the renowned Iranian film helmer Abbas Kiarostami, who was unable to attend the preem for his film “Ten” at the New York Film Festival in the fall, the international arts community is being asked to jump through hoops — and not always making it.

The issue is drawing attention from national organizations. In July the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, set up a special Web site (www.artistsfromabroad.org) to help artists navigate the Byzantine visa application process.

“Wading through the process of obtaining non-immigrant visas and understanding tax regulations remain the top hurdles to presenting artists from abroad,” said Sandra Gibson, prexy and chief exec of Apap.

Performers are not the only ones being affected by the Dept. of Homeland Security, however.

Tourism, which has already taken major hits this year from the war in Iraq, SARS and a long, rainy spring in the Northeast, is bracing for more bad news.

In New York, where this year an estimated 5.4 million international visitors will account for 42% of tourist spending, according to NYC & Co., the city’s tourism bureau, the new regs are particularly hard to swallow, even if no one wants to argue with heightened security.

“It’s great to have increased security measures, but (the visa requirements) are making it very expensive for a lot of people,” said Cristyne L. Nicholas, prexy and chief exec of NYC & Co. “We’re down in foreign tourists about 12% to 17% from before 9/11 figures, and I am not optimistic that we’re going to turn the problem around.”

Nicholas said that the bitter irony is that with SARS and the conflict in Iraq (mostly) over, people actually want to come to the U.S. now.

“It’s not a question of demand. A lot of Europeans want to come but can’t with the new restrictions,” she said. “This is a real problem.”

New York and other cities have upped their lobbying efforts in Washington, and there has been some success — President Bush recently allocated $50 million to an international tourism-marketing program, for example. But the new visa requirements will mean tackling the problem more aggressively.

And perhaps more generously. When a Canadian couple with tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at the Meadowlands last month couldn’t enter the country because the wife, who is Croatian, didn’t have a visa, Nicholas tried to make it up to them — she gave them tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Toronto.