Monday, 27 September 2010

US introduces entrance fee for European visitors

If you are European and wish to visit the United States, starting this month you will have to pay a $14-per-person entry fee for the privilege. The unilateral move by the US has come as quite a shock to the EU, especially since neither Brussels nor individual member states were consulted about it. And European leaders are in equal parts furious and bemused that the fee is ostensibly a “tourism promotion” tax on visitors. Now, the EU is considering a retaliatory measure charging Americans to enter Europe if the US refuses to scrap the fee.

Such a fee levied to visitors from countries that do not require a tourist visa is historically unheard of, and it appears to be a new concept the US is trying to introduce. But it’s an idea that members of the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg last week were not receptive to, to say the least. Using strikingly strong language, MEPs expressed fury over this new “Electronic Travel Authorisation System” (ESTA), which they say amounts in effect to a unilateral visa.

 The US has already introduced a scheme where Europeans have to apply for security clearance online two weeks in advance before they can board a plane destined for the United States. But earlier this month they added to this a new fee, which can only be paid online with a credit card. The credit card issue has become equally as contentious as the fee itself, with MEPs expressing concern that the US may be collecting travellers’ credit card data. MEPs noted that the Department of Homeland Security appears to be free to share this data with other agencies such as the CIA or the US military.

But at the heart of the conflict is the question over whether ESTA is effectively a stealth visa. All EU citizens except those from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus can travel to the US without having to obtain a visa beforehand. Western European countries have had visa-free arrangements with the US for decades. The way visa-free agreements work is that both countries agree that they will not charge each other’s citizens to enter the country – in other words they are reciprocal arrangements, not unilateral. But by introducing a “stealth” visa fee, the US now appears to be charging Europeans to enter the US while Americans are not being charged to enter Europe. This is not how visa-free agreements are supposed to work.

On Wednesday German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok mocked the concept of trying to “promote tourism” by charging visitors to enter your country on the floor of the parliament. "Maybe the US is developing a new business model here: to have consumers pay for the advertising given to them,” he observed sarcastically.

Luckily even if the EU decides to introduce a retaliatory measure for US citizens it won't affect my pocket book, since I have a passport for each side of the Atlantic. But for a European family of four, this fee would really add up ($56 just to enter the US). It's hard to see how the "tourism promotion tax", introduced by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, could possibly have its stated effect. But the new system and the manner it was imposed on Europe certainly does reflect a long-standing attitude by the US that any visitor should be grateful for the opportunity to visit the "greatest country on Earth".


Brad Zimmerman said...

Wow... it finally pays off to be Polish! Sure, it costs $100 to apply for a visa - good for up to 10 years if you're lucky and get a 10 year visa - but assuming your application is accepted the first time around and you visit once every year or so it's a great deal.

Grahnlaw said...

I wonder at the corruption of language.

Normally a permit to enter a country is called a visa. How can prior clearance to enter be declared to be visa free?

Adding a fee to the supposedly free entry only makes matters worse.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe this. I was mad enough about the new requirement to gain security clearance to go to that country, but now they're going to charge us for it?? Well I say screw them, I just won't go. I'll go to China instead.

Steve S. said...

There are 35 countries whose citizens do not need visas to travel to the US, Al Qaeda has been actively recruiting among these populations and training them to carry out attacks in the US. The purpose of both the visa-like fee and the collection of credit card info should be fairly obvious.

I'd normally decry the expansion of the security state, but I can't help but approve of this.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

That's fine, but you'll have to accept that this means Europe will have to impose a visa system on Americans in response. If the US and Europe were to go back to imposing a visa system between them, which hasn't existed for some 30 years, it seems like a giant step backward to me.

Steve S. said...

Well, there have been a lot of trade-offs for "security" over the last ten years, but on the whole, this one seems to have more concrete benefits than many of the others.

I also thought this, in a similar vein, was interesting:

In effect, the EU is trying to block US access to travel data from third countries (particularly Pakistan) while preserving its own access to the same information