Saturday 16 February 2019

Fortress America

With the Homeland Security department seeking to impose yet more checks on transatlantic travellers, is a trip to the US becoming more trouble than it's worth? Pól Ó Conghaile reports

Pol O Conghaile

First come the biometric passports. Then the gauntlet of fingerprints, photographs and gruff immigration officers.

"When you invite somebody to your front door, you don't just let them in," explains Sheila Paskman, press officer at the US Embassy in Dublin. "You check and see who they are before you open the door."

If you thought transatlantic travel was hassle now, however, think again. This week, the US Department of Homeland Security began agitating for the supply of personal data in advance of trips, and the expanded use of armed marshalls on transatlantic planes.

Officials in Brussels have described the demands, aimed at countries on (or hoping to sign up to) the US visa-waiver programme, as "blackmail" and "troublesome". Airlines have characterised some as "absurd". Is travel to America becoming more trouble than it's worth?

"The hassle is just too much," says Eoghan Corry, editor of Travel Extra magazine. "Why hassle yourself to go to America, when the Caribbean is there, the Maldives, all of these other markets?"

Since the US began tightening security controls in 2001, he says, all of its major tourist markets have been in decline. Japan has "collapsed", he says. France, Italy and Germany have fallen off by between 2pc and 8pc a year. Visits from the UK alone are down 11pc since 2001.

"There is also something the Americans don't acknowledge, which is the actual immigration officers in the booths. That is a huge problem, but it's one we're almost completely shielded from because the vast majority of our traffic goes in the morning flights out of Dublin and Shannon, when the immigration takes place on Irish soil."

Of course, few travellers would begrudge the US a certain paranoia, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And most are prepared to undergo a certain number of checks -- if it means they are less likely to end up on a plane alongside a Richard Reid or Mohamed Atta.

"People going to the States want to feel safe and they like the fact that there is good security," says Mary McKenna, managing director of Tour America. She has heard few complaints about measures currently in place, she says. "It hasn't stopped anybody considering the States."

The visa-waiver program, in operation since 1988, allows visitors from 27 countries -- including Ireland -- to enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa. Originally devised to aid tourism and curb illegal immigration, it has been altered several times since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Since 2004, for instance, travellers from visa-waiver countries have been photographed and fingerprinted before entering the US. Since 2006, they have been obliged to carry machine-readable or biometric passports bearing digital photos, personal details and holograms (by 2016, all Irish passports will be biometric).

More recently, the EU has supplied American authorities with several items of personal information, derived from the Passenger Name Record System (PNR), on every traveller flying from the EU to the US.

"Personally, I think a lot of people understand the need for it," Sheila Paskman says, pointing out that the US isn't alone in introducing stricter security controls. "I do think people feel a little inconvenienced, but when you look at the bigger picture, I think they understand why it is necessary."

The goal is not to discourage people from travelling, she adds. "We definitely want tourists and visitors to the US. It is to keep out the few people that are problematic."

But others believe the latest demands are a step too far. On foot of new visa-waiver rules passed by the US Congress last August, Homeland Security is now seeking armed US marshalls on all flights from Europe to America by US airlines, a vetting of passengers several days before they travel, and even the supply of information on air passengers overflying, but not landing, in the US.

As it stands, Irish travellers enjoy a relatively easy run of things due to the presence of US immigration officers at Dublin and Shannon. "You're meeting really nice people," as Mary McKenna puts it. "They're Americans living here in Ireland and they seem to be very chatty with people."

And indeed, whilst other markets are in decline, Irish visits to North America jumped from 360,000 in 2001 to 535,000 in 2006, according to CSO. Buoyed by a favourable exchange rate and the Open Skies agreement signed in March 2007, passenger figures are healthier than ever.

According to Eoghan Corry, however, Irish travellers to the US are "immune" to the inconvenience others experience. Immigration officers respond better to English-speaking travellers, he believes, and our cordial relationship with America and experience of terrorism in Northern Ireland means a little extra tolerance and friendliness may be shown on both sides.

"But where we empathise with them and get a warm welcome at the other end, someone from Germany or Italy would say, for example, 'Why pay the money, why waste the money on this?'"

At the US Embassy, Sheila Paskman is aware of the poor image of immigration officials. "Certainly when you are handling massive numbers of travellers every day, there are bound to be some small glitches. But I think there is a real effort going on in the Department of Homeland Security in terms of giving people appropriate training in customer service."

Ireland's participation in the visa-waiver programme is not up for renewal until summer 2009. So what may prove most interesting about the new demands in the short term is the fact that Homeland Security appears to have first approached EU countries whose citizens still need visas to enter the US -- Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, for example.

Such countries are both eager to curry favour with the US, Corry suggests, and to secure visa-free travel for their citizens. However, any move to sign bilateral deals on their part could potentially weaken the collective EU bargaining position.

"They're trying to sign up some of the wannabe visa-waiver countries in Europe to cause a little bit of dissent in the European ranks... if someone like the Czech Republic does a solo run, it will cause division within the European ranks and the Americans will have an advantage."

Already, a sense of tit-for-tat is brewing. This week, plans to replicate US security measures at EU borders were unveiled by the EU Justice Commissioner, Franco Frattini. They include the fingerprinting of all visitors (including Americans) and the electronic recording of each entry and exit in a single European database.

The scheme must be approved by all EU governments before it can come into force in 2013, as proposed. But one thing's for sure. From whichever end you look at it, the transatlantic journey isn't getting any easier.

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