The U.S. Travel Association expressed disappointment that the U.S. government was mandating usage of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) without an effective plan to achieve full enrollment in the program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced that it will fine airlines that board a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) traveler without an ESTA beginning March 20, following a 60-day grace period. As result of this new policy, thousands of travelers who pose no security risk could be denied boarding on U.S.-bound flights by airlines starting today, U.S. Travel said.
"Electronic authorization for travel is an important security program and the U.S. travel community supports full compliance," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. "But it is common sense to couple mandatory compliance with a substantial effort to register all travelers. If we don't, we risk $5 billion in losses at a time when our economy can least afford it by senselessly denying entry to travelers that wish us no harm."
The U.S. government appears to lack a comprehensive communications campaign, alliance with airlines or partnership with foreign airports to drive ESTA enrollment beyond the current level of compliance, the association said. The U.S. Travel Association strongly encourages the following actions:
* Congress should immediately make funds available to provide alternative enrollment mechanisms, including internet kiosks near ticket check-in at international airport terminals and at arrival areas of U.S. port of entries that enable travelers to comply with ESTA requirements
* The Department of Commerce should immediately begin work with DHS to explore the reasons behind non-compliance and recommend a strategy and specific tactics for achieving full compliance;
* The Administration should launch a robust, multi-agency "100 Percent Compliance" communications campaign targeting foreign travel agents, foreign media and others interested in generating travel to the United States
* Following the 60-day grace period, DHS should allow VWP travelers without an ESTA a one-time waiver to board U.S.-bound flights as long as the individual's personal data is first checked against all necessary intelligence databases and cleared for travel, and they are allowed to complete the ESTA upon arrival within the secure immigration processing area
* DHS should measure compliance rates at the 60-day mark and evaluate whether to extend the grace period if compliance levels are not high enough to avoid significant disruption to travelers and the travel system
In 2008, the U.S. welcomed 17 million arrivals from VWP countries that do not need a visa for short-term travel to the United States. Based on this data and an ESTA compliance rate reported at 91 percent in late 2009, U.S. Travel estimates that after the 60-day grace period, more than 2,200 international travelers could be denied boarding each day. By not aggressively working to enroll more travelers in the ESTA program, the U.S. government would neglect 67,000 travelers each month. According to U.S. Travel, this means an average cost to the United States economy of $13.2 million and 132 jobs each day.
"New ESTA requirements are just the latest example of the critical need for a standing communications capability to reach international travelers," said Dow. "The Travel Promotion Act would enable our country to better communicate with travelers about security changes and ensure that this critical aspect of our economy thrives. Unintentionally making the United States a less desirable place to visit for business, study or leisure will hinder our economic recovery and our public diplomacy efforts around the world."
The Travel Promotion Act passed both the House and Senate in 2009 but requires final passage in the Senate before reaching the President's desk for signature. For more information on the bill, visit www.poweroftravel.org and click on the "Travel Promotion" icon. Visit www.ustravel.org.