Travel industry must publicize new security rule


POSTED: Monday, February 08, 2010

New rules requiring travelers from countries without visa requirements to fill out online forms to visit the United States should prompt the tourism industry to gear up to assure compliance. The industry has had more than a year to prepare for the enforcement and should remind travelers from Japan, South Korea, Australia and 32 other visa waiver countries at every opportunity.

In tourism-dependent Hawaii, this is especially vital to prevent passenger snafus, as well as airline fines that kick in come mid-March.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security revealed the rules in January 2009. Travelers from abroad have long been required to fill out forms for their identity and other information during their flights to America. The current rule requires that they fill out the forms on a Web site to register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before boarding their planes, but it has not been enforced. The registration is good for multiple entries into the country for two years.

The registration was recommended in 2004 by the 9/11 Commission. If it had been enforced last December, it may have prevented a Nigerian from boarding a plane in Amsterdam and trying to set off a bomb as it approached Detroit.

Since Jan. 20, inbound travelers to the U.S. may have been denied airline boarding if they had not complied. Beginning March 20, airlines face a fine of $3,300 for boarding each traveler who is in the Visa Waiver Program but has not registered at the Web site. The program is now in a transition period.

Travelers are warned that approval of the registration could take up to 72 hours, although it usually is completed within a few minutes. The U.S. Senate gave its approval in September to charge visitors from visa waiver countries a minimum of $10 to fill in the form and enter the country.

The U.S. Travel Association is worried that the U.S. government “;appears to lack a comprehensive communications campaign, alliance with airlines or partnership with foreign airports to drive ESTA enrollment beyond the current level of compliance.”; A legitimate concern is the absence of Internet kiosks at foreign airport terminals for last-minute registration.

The association estimates that 10 percent of visa waiver travelers lack a valid registration. The government has been advertising the program, but the tourism industry should appreciate its obligation to make travelers aware at every entry point of making travel plans: Internet travel sites such as Expedia, airline reservation Web sites or services by phone and person-to-person travel agencies arranging single or group travel plans.

The industry has known for more than a year that the registration would become mandatory. It needs to make an extra effort to alert every traveler planning a trip to America from a visa waiver country.