Industry Associations, Tour Ops: You Won’t Need EU Visas This Year

European Union flags waving in front of the EU Parliament building in Brussels
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Executives from major travel industry associations and tour operators Travel Agent spoke with agree that travel agents probably won’t see an impact from the European Parliament’s vote Thursday to rescind visa-free travel from the United States this year.

“This was a procedural action that they’re taking as part of a larger dialogue on the Visa Waiver Program,” says Patricia Rojas, vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association.

To move forward, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, would need to take action on the vote, which is nonbinding. The visa dispute dates back to 2014, when the EU first notified the United States of the issue. The problem? Currently, the U.S. does not allow visa-free travel for citizens from Poland, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, all of which are EU members. If a country does not allow visa-free travel from all EU members, the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, is obligated to move to rescind visa-free travel from that country under EU regulations – although it can also consider the political and economic consequences of such a decision.

Those consequences are the reason many industry executives Travel Agent spoke with believe agents won’t see any major policy changes this year.

“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,” says Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours. “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.”

“I don’t think anybody who’s booked a trip [to Europe] should be concerned about coming,” agrees Rojas.

At the same time, industry executives Travel Agent spoke with emphasized the continued importance of open travel to the industry and to the economy.

“Restricting Americans’ visa-free travel to Europe would concern us,” says Eben Peck, SVP, government affairs and communications at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). “Europe is the largest overseas market for outbound U.S. travel, with 12.6 million Americans visiting in 2015 according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. This is one of the reasons we have long supported our government’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which strengthens U.S. security by allowing only pre-screened, pre-approved travelers from participating allied countries to travel to the United States visa-free for stays of up to 90 days for business or leisure.”

“IATA advocates for borders that are open to people and to trade,” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in a statement to Travel Agent. “We believe it is vital that a settlement is reached between the U.S. and EU on this issue. The potential impact if a settlement is not reached is well-recognized by all parties.”

If, in the future, the EU were to restrict visa-free travel from the United States, it would have a strong impact on tourism. According to a recent study by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), such a move could result in approximately 5.5 million fewer visitors from the U.S. and a loss of $7.5 billion in visitor spending. That translates to a 1.2 percent and 1.8 percent drop in visitors and spending, respectively. Hardest-hit would be Italy, followed by Belgium, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland.

“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,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), in a written release. “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." 

Major cruise selling travel agents say that they don’t expect to see any impact soon either – here’s a look at what they had to say.