Texan backpackers turned away by Irish immigration

DUBLIN — Tourism Ireland's slogan, “Go where Ireland takes you,” encourages overseas visitors to explore the country.

But for three young Texans beginning a backpacking holiday, the place where Ireland took them on arrival at the Dublin airport Friday, July 3, was the departure lounge and an expensive return flight to the United States.

They were barred from entering "Ireland of the Welcomes" (another Irish tourism catch-phrase) by an immigration officer because they did not have return tickets, had no accommodation address in Ireland and could not show bank statements confirming they had sufficient funds to maintain themselves.

However, when they were escorted to the airline desk they were each able to pay the $1,800 required for the one-way Dublin-New York flight — by using their credit cards.

“This was the most ironic part, given the reason we were denied entry,” said Colin Zwirko, 21, speaking by telephone from the U.S. “We had enough money to pay for the tickets.”

Zwirko said he told the immigration official she could inspect the young mens' bank accounts online and confirm that they contained thousands of dollars, but she refused.

Zwirko told me he sold his Volkswagen for $7,250 to make the long-planned European tour with his friends Ben Whitehurst, 21, and Gavin Sides, 19.

They had planned to hike around Ireland for two weeks before moving on to Scotland and from there to continental Europe.

He was taken aback by “how very stern, how very cold and how very over-zealous” the uniformed official was in her decisions.

On the seven-hour flight back to the U.S., sitting separately from his friends, Zwirko felt “unable to sleep, eat or think straight.”

The group had planned to stay in Ireland with people contacted through the website www.couchsurfing.org, a non-profit international network that provides names of homeowners prepared to give free accommodation to travelers.

Their story, first reported in The Dallas Morning News and picked up by The Irish Times, a leading Dublin newspaper, has become a considerable embarrassment to Irish officials.
Ireland is currently making a major effort to attract American tourists to the country to boost the recession-hit economy.

Breandan O Caollai, the New York-based deputy Irish consul general, contacted Zwirko to say his office could file a complaint with the Irish Department of Justice, and told him that the consulate would try to resolve the issue.

“It's not typical for American citizens,” O Caollai told the Dallas newspaper. “Usually they get a tremendous welcome.”

Officials from Delta Airlines, which conveyed the young men from Dublin to New York, also said they would look at reducing the cost incurred.

The Garda (or police) National Immigration Bureau, which controls immigration at Irish ports and airports, confirmed that only a very small number of people were turned away at ports of entry and the decision could be challenged.

“Refusal of entry to U.S. nationals is particularly rare, which, in part, is accounted for by the fact that the requirements Ireland makes of visiting non-Irish nationals mirrors those made by the U.S. immigration authorities in respect of non-U.S. nationals visiting that jurisdiction,” a spokesman told the Irish Times.

Irish travelers to the United States are liable to be turned back by U.S. immigration officers for similar reasons, but the inconvenience is much less, as the U.S. immigration procedure is carried out at Irish airports before departure.

Tourism Ireland has written to the Garda National Immigration Bureau expressing concern at its decision and asking for an urgent investigation.

On The Dallas Morning News website, comments ranged from sympathy to readers who thought the travelers got what they deserved for not planning better.

“I hope they can restart their trip ... just don't start in Ireland," wrote one reader.

Another wrote, “Well, so three dudes that didn't do the most essential research before starting on their trip to the very liberal European Union got turned down at the port of entry. Tough luck. Next time do your homework BEFORE hopping on a flight to the EU and make sure to have the proper documents with you.”

The three young men do hope to return to Ireland, and because of the publicity they now have an offer from D4 Hotels, which own three properties in Dublin, for a week’s free accommodation.

That should help them make a case to the immigration officer who greets them on their return.

Read more about Ireland:

I will arise and go now ... to a summer school

For Ireland, the party is over

Erin goin' nowhere

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a url.