In 2018, the US received approximately 740,000 visitors a week. While that number looks big, when compared to the US population of 372 million, it is relatively small, equal to only .2 percent of the population. In stark contrast, last week Saudi Arabia, a country of about 33 million people, hosted about 140,000 international visitors for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, temporarily increasing its population by 4 percent.
Such international events can put a strain on a country, not to mention an immigration system. When hosting major international events, countries have come up with a variety of ways to process international travelers.
Saudi Arabia – The Hajj
To coordinate the large number of visitors traveling for the Hajj, Saudi Arabia has instituted a system of pilgrimage visas. These visas are allocated to specific countries through a quota system and are only available through official Hajj travel agents. Individuals cannot apply for a pilgrimage visa directly. In addition, pilgrimage visas are limited in geographic scope (they only allow travel to the area of the pilgrimage, not to other regions of Saudi Arabia) and duration (pilgrims must depart the country shortly after the traditional pilgrimage week).
Various Countries – The Olympics
Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, the Japanese government plans to create an eVisa process to streamline entry for international spectators. For the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Korea offered easy extensions of stay for Olympic spectators and offered a special visa-free entry period to citizens of some countries normally subject to visa requirements. Similarly, Brazil waived visa requirements during the 2016 Rio games.
Russia – The Soccer World Cup
When the FIFA Men’s Soccer World Cup was held in Russia, spectators were exempt from visa requirements if they obtained a “Fan ID”, which also gave access to public transportation between venues. Qatar is reported to be considering a similar visa/fan ID combination when they host the event in 2022.
United States – The United Nations General Assembly
The 74th Session of the UN General Assembly will open on September 17th in New York City. This event draws political figures from around the world, many of whom would not normally be granted a US visa. For example, Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to the Assembly in 2011. Other notable UN visitors have included Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khrushchev. To facilitate the travel of such individuals, the US has the C-2 visa. A subcategory of the US transit visa, this category allows travel only to the UN and the immediate vicinity, defined as within 25 miles of Columbus Circle, New York.
Pilgrimage visas organized by travel agents, eVisas, Fan IDs, and location specific visas are just some of the ways countries adjust their visa requirements for special events.