A Polish flag adorned with black ribbons to mark the deaths flies from the window of a car in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago.
Chicago, as we all know, has more Poles than any city outside Warsaw. Nearly a million Chicago-area residents have Polish ancestry. On parts of the Northwest Side, the Old Style signs advertise “Zimny Piwo,” and the ATM machine ask if you prefer English or Polish.
Yet Poland is one of the few European nations whose citizens need a visa to travel to the United States. Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Mike Quigley, who represents the Polish Broadway at Belmont and Central, are introducing legislation to include Poland in the Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Poles to visit the United States for 90 days, visa free.
According to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), in 2010, 65% of visitors from overseas were from VWP countries. While here, they spent nearly $61 billion, and generated $9 billion in tax revenue. In recent years, Poland's GDP increased nearly 10-fold, from $64.5 billion USD in 1990, to $514.5 billion USD in 2011. The Czech Republic entered the Visa Waiver Program in 2008, and saw its temporary visitor traffic to the U.S. jump from 42,923 in 2007 to 50,276 - an increase of 17.13 percent in one year. The Czech Republic's GDP is 217 billion U.S. dollars - less than half of Poland's GDP.
If Poland had a similar increase in traffic, it would result in an additional 11,390 visitors a year. According to the U.S. Travel Association, an average overseas visitor will spend $4,300 in the U.S. per trip. With a 17 percent increase in travel to the U.S. from Poland, nearly $50 million in additional spending would occur a year.
Polish tourism probably benefits Chicago more than tourism from any other country on Earth. A good number of Chicago Poles are Polish immigrants, so their relatives come here for extended visits, and buy a lot of Chicago Fire tickets. Let them stay for 90 days. Let them stay as long as they want.