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Transatlantic Travel Stupidities

There’s something about travel that seems to bring out the worst in both the American and British governments. Exhibit A is American: the Travel Promotion Act of 2009. Introduced by Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and John Ensign (R-NV), the Act would impose a $10 fee on visitors coming from visa waiver countries. The money raised would be matched by a $100 million levy on “United States members of the international travel and tourism industry,” and would be spent by an independent, non-profit travel promotion corporation governed by an eleven-member board of directors appointed by the Secretary of Commerce. The purpose of all of this is to “establish a non-profit corporation to communicate United States entry policies and otherwise promote leisure, business, and scholarly travel to the United States.”

The Act is currently hung up in the Senate. That is just as well, because, as my colleague Jena Baker McNeill points out, it contains remarkable number of bad ideas. It reminds me of the old Monty Python sketch in which a “man on the street” suggested that Britain raise money by taxing foreigners who lived abroad. The idea that imposing additional fees will encourage “scholarly travel” — or any other kind of travel, for that matter — is bizarre. The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) — used to automatically determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the U.S. under the visa Waiver Program — was supposed to be free: imposing fees, as outraged letters from European ambassadors made it clear, could have negative implications for reciprocal visa-free travel between the E.U. and the US.

By definition, ESTA users already want to visit the U.S. The Act would tax them in order to subsidize campaigns aimed at boosting interest in tourism among uninterested foreigners, and promote parts of the U.S. they do not want to visit at the expense of those that are popular. Anyone who catches a whiff of tourist promotion-flavored pork in the requirement that the Corporation identify opportunities and strategies to promote tourism to rural and urban areas equally, including areas not traditionally visited by international travelers, is right on target. And then there is the curious belief that the travel industry can be defined clearly enough to pay a levy, or that particular industries should be levied to fund policies that will supposedly benefit everyone. Yes, levies may work for the National Peanut Board, but is that really what the travel industry wants to compare itself to?

But compared to Exhibit B, from Britain, the American Act almost looks sensible. The UK has a new points-based visa system. In theory, this is the right approach. But in practice, it’s going to have a disastrous effect on U.S. interest in the UK. That’s partly because the visa application fee ranges from 145 pounds for a student up to an eye-watering 1,020 pounds for an unsponsored applicant. More fundamentally, though, it’s because the government wants to curtail the number and type of non-EU passport holders working in the UK, apparently on the economically illiterate theory than there are only so many jobs to go round. As a result, it now bars non-EU passport holders (with a few exceptions) from taking even unpaid internships.

As Scott Paul at the Adam Smith Institute points out, the argument that this will force employers to hire and pay Britons is nonsensical: what the requirement will really do is “[pronounce] a death sentence on thousands of UK internship programmes at universities around the world,” including in the U.S. He’s right: Yale, for example, canceled its “British Bulldogs” program this summer for exactly that reason. And over the long run, that’s going to be bad for Anglo-American relations, and for the British economy.

Nations have the right to control their own borders. But wouldn’t it be great if governments on both sides of the Atlantic would stop taxing, deterring, and rejecting potential visitors who cost nothing, freely spend their own money abroad, and do a great deal to promote friendly relations between the U.S. and Britain?


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