Monday, 27 September 2010
US introduces entrance fee for European visitors
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".