International Festival artists face the visa challenge

A funny thing happened on the way to the Festival

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Visas — the official travel permits allowing entry, exit, and extended stays in a country — have rarely been headline-worthy. But they are now.

To get a sense of the frustration visas are causing these days, you have to conjure up Bogie's Casablanca and those stranded wartime refugees willing to beg, bribe, or steal for exit visas and a seat on the Lisbon plane. Ever since the U.S. began more intensive vetting of foreign nationals in the interest of tightening national security, today's prospective travelers have faced bureaucratic tangles even Captain Renault couldn't simply wave away. It's an issue that impacts the Spoleto Festival, too.

"In the years since 9/11," says Nigel Redden, Spoleto USA's General Director, "it's become daunting." Visa approvals, which used to take weeks, now routinely stretch into months.

Because of visa delays, Argentine musician Willy González barely made it into the country for last year's festival. He arrived only the day before his first show. González's may have been an extreme case, but with so many Spoleto artists arriving from overseas, visas constitute an ongoing headache for the festival.

"There are all kinds of logistical challenges," says Redden. He cites this year's Chinese opera, Feng Yi Ting, in which the entire cast is only two singers.

"One of the singers got her visa the day before she left and got the approval only the week before. Obviously, if she hadn't had the approval..." A frown crosses his brow. "It's not everyone who can sing Szechuanese opera. And there wouldn't have been time to bring anyone from China."

Even getting the visa process rolling demands a considerable allocation of festival resources.

"Not only does it take a long time for the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) to review the paperwork, it takes a long time to amass the paperwork," says Redden. "You have to gather documentation about the particular strength of the artist as an artist, and if necessary, translate it into English. All that takes a fair amount time and a fair amount of staff work." After which, the waiting game begins. But there is hope that this may change.

The U.S. travel industry, claiming tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue due to visa backlogs, has been lobbying hard for new procedures that would reduce visa processing to 10 days or less, in line with the standard turnaround in many Western European countries.

For the Spoleto festival, these changes can't happen too soon. "It is a problem,' Redden says, "but there are many problems putting on an international festival. You just say, 'Okay — now this is a hurdle. It used not to be, but it is now.' You realize that there are these barriers to overcome and you overcome them."

Sounds just like what Bogie would do.

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