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A transatlantic tourism tax?

Europeans decry $14 fee for visitors to the US who don't need visas.

transatlantic relations tourism ESTA
A new $14 fee for visitors to the United States who don't need visas might discourage Europeans like Britons Steve Kingston (left) and his son Oliver, — vacationing in Hollywood, Fl. on Aug. 19, 2009 — from visiting the U.S. or spending money when they arrive. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — A $14 tax could be the final straw for Europeans, who have long threatened to retaliate for impositions on European travelers to America.

The European Union has been in a bitter battle with the United States for years to obtain the right for all its citizens to enter the U.S. without a visa, as Americans can do in the EU. Now, citizens of all 27 EU nations except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania have the coveted “visa-waiver” status and the EU vows it won’t rest until all its members do.

But visa-waiver status no longer means eligible travelers can board flights to the States without advance permission. Since January 2009 the U.S. has required visa-free travelers to submit their personal details online into the “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” (ESTA) and receive approval from the Department of Homeland Security before departure.

Homeland Security insists that “ESTA is not a visa,” reasoning that an ESTA approval “does not meet the legal requirements to serve in lieu of a U.S. visa when a visa is required.” While the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has initially allowed that ESTA is not officially a visa, it has lawyers analyzing whether it is “tantamount to a visa” and therefore deserving of retaliation.

Earlier this month the U.S. Congress added another flashpoint: The “Travel Promotion Act” will charge travelers from visa-waiver states $10 to enter the U.S., plus $4 to administer the program. The act is an effort to combat an almost 10-percent drop in the number of visitors to the U.S. over the past decade.

British citizen Julia Johnson, an international marketing director who frequently travels to the U.S. on business, said the entire ESTA process makes her feel “put upon.” “I was dismayed the first time I had to make this application,” she said. “It seems to me the Department of Homeland Security is infringing upon our lives, the lives of 'aliens' as we’re called, more and more. And to discover this time that I needed to pay.”

“Fourteen dollars is not an extravagant amount and many would be willing to spend such money,” explained Kloe Tricot, a Belgo-Irish student who will be leading a “model United Nations” team from Belgium to New York in the spring. “The problem isn’t really what we are asked to do, but why we are asked to do it,” she added, saying it looks like the U.S. is either trying to make money off visitors who will be spending plenty anyway or is suffering a “certain security paranoia.”

Despite the transatlantic criticism, the U.S. tourism sector is thrilled. Supporters say the additional Travel Promotion Act-funded advertising will bring in 1.6 million new tourists and therefore, 40,000 new U.S. jobs. “Up to $4 Billion in Economic Stimulus at No Cost to American Taxpayers” trumpets a headline by the U.S. Travel Association.

Marlene Colucci, executive vice president of public policy for the American Hotels and Lodging Association, predicts the additional tourists attracted by new promotion will “spend a projected $4 billion in their visits, [generating] $321 million in tax revenue, helping to reduce the federal budget deficit by $425 million over the next 10 years. This bill will deliver the kind of serious economic growth that the United States needs to experience to pull itself out of this recession.”

The crowing on the U.S. side of the Atlantic is meeting a cold stare from this side. The Travel Promotion Act is illogical, say Europeans, not to mention unwelcoming.

Several members of the center-right European People’s Party, the largest in the European Parliament, issued a harsh response, calling the fee “harassment,” “unjustifiable” and a “burden on transatlantic relations.” “We have to remind the U.S. once again,” the lawmakers said in a statement, “that transatlantic cooperation can only work if both partners are on the same level … . This rip-off is not acceptable.”

“It seems peculiar,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said during a debate on the subject in parliament, “that foreigners are requested to pay for promoting tourism to the United States, as this may possibly lead to less — and not more — travel.”