Gadling mentioned today the U.S. Travel Association‘s “Discover America” campaign to encourage international visitors to come to the United States. Apparently there was a steep drop-off after September 11, 2001, and they decided along with Congress that the best way to address this problem was to tax all international visitors $14. (It also appears that this is why the current “Daily Getaways” promotions have been given their new name.)
Does this really make sense? I’m a biologist, not an economist, but I did take more than my fair share of math and economics electives in college. I seem to recall that the purpose of a tax is, broadly speaking, to either (1) raise funds toward a common good or (2) discourage an activity that detracts from the common good. While we can agree that someone needs to pay to encourage foreign tourists to visit our country, I think the last people we should be asking to foot the bill is the travelers themselves.
That $14 fee is collected by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which apparently is mandatory even for visitors from countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program. It baffles me that while I can flit around the world, going to such out of the way locations as Bahrain and Kuwait on a whim, we can’t even let people from Britain or Mexico in without making them register and pay a fee in advance.
And if your home country doesn’t participate in the Visa Waiver Program, then you need to apply for a $140 visa and wait up to a few weeks for a response. I haven’t yet needed to apply for a visa for any of my own international travel, but my impression is that for most countries it is much less time consuming–though not always less expensive. I can definitely tell you that one reason I’ve held off on visiting some of those countries (like China) so far is that I don’t particularly want to pay a fee just to see a new place. There are plenty of other must-see destinations that I can get to first without a visa.
I had no idea these kinds of restrictions on foreign travelers to the United States even existed until about a year ago. The whole system just seems perverse. You want to know why people aren’t visiting the U.S.? Maybe it’s because security theater, travel restrictions, and various senseless fees have become so overwhelming that even Americans don’t want to travel here. Upon arrival in Vancouver last weekend, they glanced at my passport and sent me on my way. On the return to the U.S., I went through customs, answered some questions, got my bags screened, had my passport stamped, all before we even boarded the train. Then the train stopped again at the border (with no stops in between) so Customs and Border Patrol could board the train, check our documents a second time, and sweep for radioactive material.
The only reason I travel as much as I do is because my elite status in several programs makes it much more tolerable, but I can understand the frustrations of some of my friends and family as well as those whose efforts to visit this so-called land of opportunity have been frustrated. Maybe what we should do is scrap the ESTA system and its silly $14 fee, dial down the TSA’s powers, and then we Americans can chip in ourselves to beg the rest of the world to give us another try…