Saturday 21 October 2017

The land of the fee

Irish tourists may soon have to pay an entry fee to visit well-known tourist attractions like Monument Valley in Utah, above, and all other US destinations
Irish tourists may soon have to pay an entry fee to visit well-known tourist attractions like Monument Valley in Utah, above, and all other US destinations

Gemma O'Doherty

If you've flown through an American airport in the past few weeks, you'll know that travel in and out of the US has become even more mind-numbingly tedious than it was in 2009.

Since the foiled Christmas Day attack, which exposed gross failures in US intelligence-sharing and airport screening, Homeland Security has been in crisis mode, making life hellish for air travellers.

Security takes longer, hand luggage is rigorously searched, sniffer dogs are in overdrive and, such is the level of alert, some airlines are telling passengers to stay in their seats for more than an hour before landing, without books or even blankets on their laps.

This week, yet another obstacle was placed in the way of long-suffering travellers when America's new electronic system of entry, which has been run on a trial basis since last January, became mandatory.

If you haven't heard the acronym ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) by now and plan to visit the States this year, there's just no avoiding it any longer.

Replacing the green card that passengers used to fill out on transatlantic flights, the new online scheme applies to all 35 countries that enjoy visa waiver status, including Ireland.

From now on, if you haven't completed the ESTA form on the internet at least 72 hours before departure, your airline will refuse entry to your flight.

Although travellers to the US have had a year to get used to this latest hurdle, soon they may have to pay for the privilege. The US Senate passed a vote in September in favour of charging tourists from visa-waiver countries a minimum of $10 (€7) to complete an ESTA and enter the US.

Washington plans to use the funds to improve the image of the US abroad and reverse the hefty drop in visitor numbers in recent years.

Since the September 11 attacks, America's share of international tourism has fallen by almost 20pc at a cost of more than 200,000 jobs. The grief of getting through hostile airport security with your self-esteem intact is thought to have played a vital role in the decline.

The EU has launched a scathing response to the new fee, with John Bruton, the European Commission's ambassador to Washington, slamming it as a counter-intuitive tax on tourism.

"Only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed," he said recently. But his complaints are expected to fall on deaf ears.

Although the legislation must still pass through the House of Representatives, tourism officials expect the new charge to be introduced this summer.

Just how it will impact on people's holiday plans remains to be seen, but at a time when America should be bending over backwards to welcome visitors, it does seem like a rather senseless step to take.

Then again, common sense isn't exactly one of Homeland Security's strong points these days. The Detroit bomb suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a well-known extremist who had left a trail of suspicious activity behind him.

Even his own father had warned authorities he was up to something, but we have yet to be told how he was able to walk onto a plane with explosives stitched into his underpants.

W

Irish Independent

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