New ESTA Program Concerns USTA

The lack of a robust communications program to explain the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a new security program for travelers to the U.S. from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries (mandatory as of January 12), is one of several concerns of the travel community regarding ESTA. ASTA, for example, has issued a Member Alert on ESTA.

Other objections cited by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), formerly the Travel Industry Association, include the absence of a non-Internet solution for those seeking ESTA approval. Another concern is the lack of any detailed plan to fulfill the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) commitment to assist travelers needing to submit ESTA applications immediately prior to traveling. Finally, the USTA is concerned with the need to have a “redress” process for those individuals mistakenly denied ESTA approval. The DHS has indicated it will demonstrate enforcement flexibility during an initial implementation period, the USTA says in its analysis.

Under ESTA, VWP travelers are required to complete an online form (essentially an electronic I-94) with biographical information and travel details prior to their departure. The form will be submitted to DHS, which will check this information against government databases and approve the traveler to board a flight to the U.S.

ESTA approval is not a guarantee of admission to the U.S. upon arrival at a port of entry. ESTA is modeled after a similar, successful program in Australia. One major benefit of ESTA is the eventual elimination of the paper-based I-94 form, which will improve the entry process for international visitors. An ESTA approval is valid for two years.

ESTA is one of several proposed security enhancements that has enabled the VWP to survive and expand. It allows for more confidence in the VWP by pre-screening individual travelers before they board flights bound for the U.S..

Because Congress tied future expansion of the VWP in mid-2009 and beyond to this and other security measures (biometric air exit), ESTA should be viewed as an investment in the preservation and expansion of the VWP, says the USTA.

Funding for a new public-private partnership to more effectively communicate U.S. security policies to international travelers and promote inbound travel is also tied to the ESTA system. Under the Travel Promotion Act, a nominal ($10) fee would be attached to the ESTA process to pay for this strategic communications program. DHS currently charges no fee for ESTA, but a small processing fee is expected in the near future, USTA says.

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