The glare of the New Jersey sun has faded the blue lettering over the years, but the water tower on Garfield Avenue still bears the legend "Wildwood Welcomes World."
It's not an empty boast for a town that has seen its tourism industry propped up for decades with the labor of thousands of foreign students on summer work visas. But now that has changed.
In Wildwood and in dozens of other resorts along the East Coast, many employers report a slump in the number of international students looking for seasonal work at restaurants, amusement parks and hotels, with tighter visa and security regulations being blamed.
Once a time-honored rite of passage for foreign college students, a summer work visa for the United States now requires greater scrutiny that ever before because of new restrictions designed to improve security and monitor visitors in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Many foreign students are deciding the new regulations are hassles they can avoid by going elsewhere. In Ireland, once the main source of students coming to the United States for summer jobs, the number of those applying for the J1 visa that allows students to work here for a summer has dropped by more than half, according to USIT, the largest travel agency for Irish students.
"Some people working in Wildwood are saying the cost and hassle of applying for the visa would put them off coming again next year," said Lynne Mitchell, 20, a physical education student from Edinburgh, Scotland, working as a lifeguard in Wildwood. "The whole visa process takes a lot of time, and it's really expensive when you consider that at the end of the day it's just for temporary summer work."
For the first time since the visa program was set up in the mid-1960s, every student applying this year is required to have a face-to-face interview at the nearest U.S. embassy. Participants must register with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System upon arrival in the United States so they can be tracked online during their stay. J1 visa holders also face mandatory fingerprinting at all ports of entry. Add up the costs involved in organizing the visa, insurance and round-trip flights, and the total bill faced by a J1 applicant this year can easily stretch to $2,000.
"Our research showed that the factors involved varied from changes in program regulation, the tightening of visa and security restrictions, and other environmental and political factors that, taken all together, created a negative view of the U.S.," said USIT's Seona Mac Reamoinn.
Anna Crew, a U.S.-based director for British Universities North America Club, which places students from Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, said new restrictions against final-year students also have hit her group hard.
"The argument [is] that they are more likely to stay on in the U.S. after their visa expires. That has wiped out over a third of our usual numbers," she said. "Added to that is the fact that the U.S. is not perceived to be as attractive a destination as before due to the war on Iraq, the security threat, and negative feeling about the U.S. in Europe and Australia."
The State Department reports that while there has been a decline in the student visa applications from some countries, the total number of students traveling to the United States this year on summer work-travel visas is the same as last year, about 84,000. Former Eastern Bloc nations are showing an increase; Poland now provides the largest number of students on J1 visas, about 22,000 this year.
The official figures do not reveal the number of foreign students who decide to work illegally in the United States during the summer months, despite the risk of severe penalties if they are caught, because they do not want to put up with the new restrictions.
James Murray, 21, a student from Dublin, works as a lifeguard in Wildwood. He has a J1 visa but says he knows dozens of foreign students working illegally in the town.
"A lot of my friends came over without a visa because it's much cheaper to do it that way, particularly this year because the cost of the program has gone up so much with the new conditions," he said. "There are between 50 and 60 people living in the same place as me and fewer than 10 have work visas. It's not difficult to get work if you don't have a visa, and some of the jobs are even better paid than the J1 jobs."
There are more jobs available, business owners say, because of the decline in the number of students coming to the United States.
"There are definitely not as many kids coming over as there used to be. I think since 9/11 it has become harder for the kids to get visas and it has become far more expensive to organize," said William Kurtz, a restaurant owner in Wildwood.
"About 15 percent of my staff have J1 visas, and I've noticed a real shift in terms of where the students are coming from. Before, most of the kids came from Ireland and the UK, but now there's been a complete turnaround and they're coming from places like Eastern Europe, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine."
Morey's Piers has been employing J1 holders for decades at its amusement park on the Wildwood boardwalk. One of the biggest employers in the area, it provides up to 1,000 seasonal jobs every year.
"We have always overhired to ensure that we can carry ourselves through the entire season, but this year it's different, because we just haven't been getting enough people," said Denise Beckson, director of operations at Morey's Piers.
"Our staff numbers are down by around 150 people from last year and we are still hiring, which is very unusual. It has the potential to cause us real problems. If the students currently working here decide to leave early and travel before they leave the U.S., it will have a serious effect on business, and I don't believe we are an isolated case."
The students themselves say they hope interest in coming to the United States doesn't wane in the coming years. For many of them, a summer spent here remains an exciting experience that leads to broader cultural understanding.
"Very few people in my country can afford to do something like this," said Ala Ossolinska, 26, a doctoral student from Katowice, Poland, who works as a payroll clerk at Morey's Piers. "It took me more than a year to save the money I needed and get the visa organized, but it was worth it.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me -- it's a wonderful chance to see another country from a different perspective, get valuable work experience and brush up on my English."