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Simon Calder: Turkish delights get tangled in red tape

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

April in the eastern Mediterranean is a joy. The air is fresh, and warming by the day. The light is sharp, shining on the blessings of nature and the creativity of man. And Turkey, in particular, is a delight, whether you spend 48 hours in Istanbul or a fortnight exploring Cappadocia.

For decades, holidays in Turkey have had the faintly annoying characteristic of starting slowly: queuing at the airport to pay a £10 visa fee upon arrival. Still, that is a relatively small expense and inconvenience for the pleasure of visiting a friendly and fascinating country. But Turkey's new "Law on Foreigners" takes effect next Friday. From 11 April onwards, every visitor seeking a city break, a week on the beach or a historical odyssey is supposed to have an e-visa.

The government claims the move will end airport queues and "make travelling to Turkey simpler and easier". But the reality is that visiting the country will become a bit more expensive and a lot more complicated.

You are kindly requested to apply at evisa.gov.tr – at least 24 hours before travel, but no earlier than three months in advance. The website claims the application process takes three steps and "approximately three minutes". Well, it's trickier than that. The personal information requested includes, oddly, your parents' first (but not last) names, as well as the issue and expiry dates of your passport. For "Your Nationality" travellers from Britain must select "United Kingdom" rather than "British". Then there is a nine-digit security verification hurdle to clear. Next, you enter your expected date of arrival. If there is any doubt, then go for the earliest possible; the e-visa expires 180 days, just short of six months, after the starting date.

When you confirm that all the information is correct, the clock starts ticking. An email is automatically generated, and you have one hour to respond (check your "junk mail" folder if it does not arrive promptly). If you meet the deadline, you are taken to the payment page. Bizarrely, though, you will be charged not in sterling, nor Turkish lira, nor even euros – but in US dollars. The fee of $20 works out at £12.50 – a quarter more than the current "walk-up" visa.

You pay with plastic. Because it is a foreign-currency transaction, if you pay by debit-card it could cost 10 per cent more because of a £1.25 "transaction fee". So use a credit card.

Your application is confirmed by another email, which allows you to download the e-visa and print it out to take with you. But if you are applying for a family, you must repeat every stage of this procedure. By the end of it, you may conclude that the old queue-up-and-pay system is "simpler and easier" than the new process.

Not welcome aboard?

Between Easter and the end of the year, more than two million British holidaymakers will be heading for Turkey and are therefore obliged to apply for an e-visa. Good tour operators and travel agents are alerting their customers to the new rules, and some are even offering to obtain the e-visa for clients. But there is no legal obligation for travel companies to warn customers.

Inevitably, some holidaymakers will fail to comply with the stipulation that the visa must be obtained at least 24 hours ahead of departure.

Late in the day, the Turkish authorities have recognised that many travellers will be unaware of the new rules. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara has actually added to the confusion by apparently contradicting the 24-hour minimum. It now says you can apply on arrival:

"Visitors arriving to Turkey without visas will be able to obtain their e-visas via interactive kiosks placed in Turkish airports."

A useful fallback – but only if the holidaymaker is allowed on board the plane to Turkey in the first place. Hard-pressed ground staff at UK airports, who face disciplinary action if they allow an ineligible passenger on to an international flight, can hardly be blamed for erring on the side of caution. They may take at face value the rule that an e-visa must be obtained in advance, and thus deny boarding to passengers without the piece of paper.

If you think the rules for airline passengers are tricky, try arriving on a cruise ship. Travellers who sail in are allowed in visa-free for up to 72 hours – so long as they don't plan to leave the port of arrival. Anyone planning an excursion, for example a day trip from Marmaris to Ephesus or Dalyan, will need to obtain an e-visa in advance. You also require an e-visa if you fly to Turkey to board a cruise ship, even if you plan to spend only a few hours on Turkish soil.

Right rip-off

Predictably, the move has spawned a number of get-rich-quick websites that seek to divert unwitting travellers from the official channel and levy high "service fees". These businesses pay Google to appear at the top of the listings when a search is made for something like "Turkey Visa". The site run by evisa.eu.com, for example, charges £55 – more than four times as much as you pay at the correct website, evisa.gov.tr. While there is an "Ad" symbol next to this and similar Google listings, exploiting hapless visitors is evidently a profitable business.

It remains to be seen what effect the new rules will have on the profits of Turkey's tourism industry. Certainly, many travel companies are appalled that the system should be introduced at the start of the holiday season, rather than in September or October when visitor numbers dwindle and the system could "bed in".

With the present timing, visitor numbers may dwindle anyway – with British heads kept away from Turkish beds by a tangle of red tape.