Simon Calder: Could your US holiday go west this summer?
Saturday 10 July 2010
The way that countries respond when tourists play hard to get tells you plenty about their attitude to visitors. Ireland has reacted to a drop in bookings from Britain by coming up with some unrefusable offers: not just short-term, limited-availability deals but "well-I-never" bargains with bucketloads of capacity. Such as: free trains for older travellers. This month, Northern Ireland Railways has joined its counterpart in the Republic in offering unlimited rail travel to overseas visitors aged 66 or above: tap "Golden Trekker" into a search engine for details.
The US is heading in a very different direction. Throughout the difficult first decade of the 21st century, in which relative tourist numbers to America have slumped, the British have proved the most resilient of visitors. The US authorities want to lure yet more of us across the Atlantic to discover our own American dream, featuring some combination of the great outdoors, high-energy cities and thrilling theme parks. They aim to do this by establishing a "Corporation for Travel Promotion". Just what the US has needed since it took the unusual step of disbanding its national tourism board in 1996. Soon, the Americans should be able to offer prospective visitors the same combination of information and inspiration that almost every nation has been providing for decades.
The big difference is: you and I will foot the bill for the big sell. Not just indirectly, through the taxes on what we eat, drink and buy while on vacation, but by paying a levy to support a budget of up to $100m (£65m) a year.
No Brit seeking to visit the US without a visa will be able to dodge the fee. That is because it will be collected when you go online, as Homeland Security requires, to apply for permission to visit. At present the "Electronic System for Travel Authorization" (Esta) is free, but by next May you will have to hand over £10 for the privilege. The Travel Promotion Act imposes a $10 fee, and the authorities reckon it will cost another $5 to collect it and administer the scheme – which you and I will also have to pay for. So $10 mushrooms to £10.
Plenty of people already think you have to pay for Esta, because if you tap that acronym into a search engine the first listing will invite you to pay £25 to an outfit called "US Esta Service Providers" – one of many pretenders. At present, the official site ( https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) is free. So if you have any vague intention of visiting the US in the next two years, apply now.
You could instead forsake North America for the lands south of the border. To tempt people aboard flights to Latin America next year, Lufthansa is offering some spectacularly low fares – see page 16 for a £327 return ticket from London to Venezuela's capital. Caracas, if you ask me. (Search midweek dates in March 2011 for the best availability at this price.) Other deals include Mexico City from Manchester for £388, or Birmingham to Bogotá for £355.
The US still gets as many British visitors in a day (18,000) as Colombia lures in a year. When you arrive at JFK or Los Angeles, it can sometimes seems all 18,000 are in the queue in front of you. But Bruce Bommarito, chief operating officer of the US Travel Association, says "We believe in secure immigration but the country's also got to be welcoming." He concedes that, five years ago, touching down in the US could be grim. "We've made some pretty good improvements. We added 800 officers to 20 airports which has shortened the lines significantly. Their goal is that no one should wait in line for more than half an hour. I think they're more than beating that goal."
Let me know if you agree.
Identity crisis for Grand Canyon state
“Carry your passport with you atall times,” urges a new warningfrom the Foreign Office. “Youwill face a fine if you do not.”You might imagine that thisnew Foreign Office bulletin isaimed at visitors to some far-offtotalitarian nation with a longhistory of antipathy to tourists.In fact, it applies to the Americanstate of Arizona, whose wondersrange from spectacular desertscenery in the south to the GrandCanyon in the north.A state law intended to “discourageand deter the unlawfulentry and presence of aliens”takes effect on 29 July. While thiscontroversial new statute isaimed at illegal immigrants fromsouth of the border, the ForeignOffice evidently feels Britishtravellers to Arizona are at risk.Bruce Bommarito of the USTravel Association sees it differently:“I don’t think anybodywalking the streets of Arizonaneed feel compelled to have theirpassport with them.”
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