Tourists from 36 Countries Pay New Fee to Visit US

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 09/10/2010
In Travel

America: land of the free? Or land of the fee? On Sept. 8 travelers from 36 different countries started paying a $14 tourist fee to enter the US.

Of the fee, $10 will be used to promote the US as a tourist destination, which has many international travelers up in arms.

Who Must Pay the Tourist Fee?

The tourist fee is now part of the ESTA — the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. ESTA was implemented in mid-January to screen travelers from countries that are part of the United States’ Visa Waiver Program.

The Visa Waiver Program allows visitors from 36 countries to travel to the United States without obtaining a tourist visa first. The 36 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program include:

Andorra Hungary New Zealand
Australia Iceland Norway
Austria Ireland Portugal
Belgium Italy San Marino
Brunei Japan Singapore
Czech Republic Latvia Slovakia
Denmark Liechtenstein Slovenia
Estonia Lithuania South Korea
Finland Luxembourg Spain
France Malta Sweden
Germany Monaco Switzerland
Greece The Netherlands United Kingdom

The Department of Homeland Security started ESTA because of national security concerns. Until this week, submitting an ESTA application was free.

Why Is There a Tourist Fee?

When ESTA was implemented in January, the Department of Homeland Security envisioned a possible $10 surcharge to be tacked on to the ESTA application.

But that envisioned $10 tourist fee became a $14 tourist fee. Four dollars of each $14 tourist fee will go to covering ESTA operating costs, while $10 will be used to promote tourism.

This idea seems counterintuitive to many — why would the United States charge tourists to promote tourism?

Anger Over the New Tourist Fee

Many have already publicly criticized the new tourist fee. Cecilia Malmström, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, called the tourist fee “inconsistent with the commitment of the US to facilitate transatlantic mobility.”

Malmström also referred to the tourist fee as a “visa through the back door” — an additional step that could dissuade potential tourists from visiting the United States.

Though the tourist fee is minimal compared to the overall cost of an international trip, the bureaucratic annoyance could convince travelers to look elsewhere for vacation destinations.

And decreased tourism isn’t the only possible effect of the tourist fee — Malmström announced that the European Union plans a comprehensive evaluation of ESTA and that several EU countries have suggested imposing tourist fees of their own.

Benefits of the Tourist Fee

Despite the backlash, US Homeland Security is standing behind the tourist fee. Homeland Security Agent Jacqueline Bednarz called ESTA “fast and easy and very user-friendly” at a press conference on Sept. 8.

Bednarz said Homeland Security views the tourist fee as “a great way to promote tourism to our country.”

In March, President Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act. The legislation established a nonprofit organization for travel promotion that would be funded by the $10 tourist fees from ESTA applications. Private sector contributions will match up to $100 million of the funding.

The total number of international visitors to the United States has decreased by more than 600,000 per year in the last decade. Consultants predict that tourism promotion could bring in as many as 1.6 million new travelers a year.

While other countries may respond by instating similar tourist fees, Homeland Security representatives did point out that the tourist fee is only paid once every two years and that 56 countries have much more exorbitant entry or exit fees that are often rolled into the price of or the tax on an airline ticket.

Whether the tourist fee will have any effect on US tourism remains to be seen, of course, and the Department of Homeland Security stated they will monitor the situation closely for the first several months.

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