PHOTO: Will US tourists require visas when traveling to Europe? (photo courtesy of Thinkstock)
The vote on March 2 by the European Parliament requiring the European Commission to suspend visa-exempt travel to Europe for Americans has put a chill on the travel marketplace.
With tour operators enjoying a strong recovery from the setback of 2016 after a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, a block on visa-free travel for Americans is not a welcome prospect. Adding new bureaucratic impediments to travel could handicap a splendid recovery.
“Conditions are so good right now for travel to Europe (exchange rates, air fares, consumer confidence) that it would be a shame to put a damper on that demand,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus family of brands.
“A visa requirement to Europe for U.S. citizens would likely have a negative impact on the current momentum to Europe. Visa requirements in other areas of the world have shown that the extra time and money required to apply for a visa is an obstacle. We’re hopeful that the ETC recommendation to forego a visa requirement is heard loud and clear by the commission.”
Not so fast. It may not happen. That seems to be the general consensus of the tour operator community and its trade organizations, the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) and the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA).
The ETOA released a statement predicting that the suspension of visa-free travel will be blocked. According to the statement, “This is extremely unlikely to happen. The Council of the EU will object and the status quo will prevail.”
The vote by the European Parliament is a reaction to a 2014 change in U.S. visa rules that required citizens of several European countries to obtain visas for travel to the U.S. The U.S. policy applies only to Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, but the rules of the EU require “full reciprocity” for all countries in the union.
The act of Parliament does not by itself put the policy into effect. It only allows the European Commission to enact the policy. The tour industry believes that expedience will prevail over principle and the status quo will remain in effect. They do not believe the Commission will choose to deal a crippling blow the tourism economies of major European countries that are the most popular tourism destinations of Americans.
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Both the Council and the Parliament have the power to overrule the vote to suspend visa-free travel. Since the vote of Parliament, attention now turns to the Council.
Tom Jenkins, the CEO of the ETOA, issued a full-throated response on behalf of the tour operator industry. Jenkins assured travelers that there is no imminent threat of suspension of visa-free travel for Americans, even though technically the EU is obligated to reciprocate as a whole if the U.S. blocks visa-free travel for any of the EU’s member countries.
In the wake of the British vote to exit the EU, this seems like another attack on the integrity of the EU. Can it possibly hold to a standard of reciprocity that would hamper the economies of some of its principal, original members?
Jenkins, never one to shy away from thorny issues, said, “Seldom has an inter-institutional dialogue contained such startling ideas. If the visa exemption were to be suspended it would inflict burdensome checks on the citizens of our most valuable ally, to certain retaliation and consequent economic detriment. Destination countries would have to hire thousands of staff to process millions of unnecessary visas.
“At a time when absurdity and politics are bedfellows, we are being asked to contemplate folly cubed. The Council needs to block this quickly. Then the Commission can return to establishing reciprocity quietly, through the normal diplomatic channels.”
Tour operators agreed wholeheartedly.
Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette and chairman of USTOA, said, “We agree with ETOA that there is no imminent threat to visa-free travel from the U.S. to Europe as we anticipate the EU Council will object and the status quo will prevail. If it does move forward, it would take time to iron out details to develop a plan to handle the backlog of requests to comply."
“Since travel to Europe is on the increase and this surge is boosting the European economy, mandating visas would be untimely, short-sighted and create a negative result. Our goal is to remain informed and vocal about the impact that tourism has on the economy. Imposing rules that deter people from traveling inevitably has negative economic repercussions.”
Unfortunately, in the travel industry perception is often reality, and even the possibility of a suspension of visa-free travel can cause prospective travelers to skip over Europe when planning their travel in favor of other destinations. Although tour operators believe the policy will eventually be blocked, they need for it to happen fast. They want the idea to be blown out of the water quickly before it settles into the minds of prospective travelers.
“The important point to be made is that there is no imminent threat to visa-free travel for U.S. citizens to Europe,” said Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA. “And, while speculation is understandable, our counterparts in Europe (at ETOA) are of the mindset that it is extremely unlikely to happen. Should this issue remain unresolved by early summer, it will be a major point of discussion when USTOA members hit the Capitol for our annual Congressional Caucus.”
The mere possibility of the block on visa-free travel is already making waves in the marketplace.
Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar, reports that the company has received numerous calls from agents and customers who now believe that they will need a visa to travel to Europe.
“We had a conference call this morning with our experts in Europe,” said Wiseman, “and I believe we have a very accurate view on this situation. Our strong belief at this time is that this is simply not going to happen in 2017.
“Looking at the reality and importance of inbound tourism for European countries, combined with the extensive list of important issues that the EU is dealing with at the present time, we firmly believe that the larger countries in Europe will not allow this to proceed for 2017. “Our agent partners at this time should reassure clients that there absolutely has been no definitive decision to create a visa requirement and that clients can make their travel plans knowing that.”