The Travel Industry Association (TIA) heralded official expansion of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which is estimated to bring approximately 1 million new visitors to the U.S. annually. The VWP allows citizens from participating countries to travel to the U.S. for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Starting today, travelers from seven new countries— the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta and South Korea— can travel to the U.S. without first obtaining a tourist visa. The U.S. government is currently talking to Poland, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Romania about joining the program.
"Adding friends and allies to the Visa Waiver Program strengthens U.S. security, boosts America's vital public diplomacy efforts and stimulates U.S. economic growth," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of TIA. "TIA worked closely with the U.S. government to enact reforms that allow for VWP expansion with enhanced security measures, and we are pleased to see them take effect. While today's expansion will benefit the economy, we still have a long way to go to regain the millions of travelers we have lost since 9/11. As the dollar gains strength and we experience a global financial downturn, the United States needs a clear strategy for welcoming more visitors in a highly competitive environment."
Additional expansion of the VWP to qualified countries could come to a halt in 2009 if the Department of Homeland Security does not deploy a biometric system for confirming the exit of foreign visitors departing the United States. TIA strongly supports the exit requirement and is working with the entire travel community to devise a secure and efficient solution.
Travelers under the new VWP countries must register before traveling through the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) as part of new security procedures established for the expansion. ESTA is an automated system used to determine the eligibility of VWP visitors to travel to the U.S. and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk. Travelers from all visa waiver countries will be required to participate in ESTA as of January 12, 2009.
The travel community has called on the Department of Homeland Security to implement ESTA in a way that will not create unnecessary barriers to travel, such as informing foreign visitors about ESTA requirements through a large-scale education effort and increasing convenience by providing alternate means for travel authorization that are not Internet-based and are part of a typical travel-booking process.
The online form is currently free. Travelers can register online at www.cbp.gov/esta.