VISAS are necessary evils. They offer governments a way to control their borders, whether to regulate the flow of immigrants or to pick out threats to security. But the paperwork and fees they entail also deter legitimate tourists and business travellers. Researchers at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, reckon that eliminating all travel visas to the United States would add between $90 billion and $123 billion in annual tourist spending. By one estimate, introducing visa restrictions can lower trade and foreign direct investment between a pair of countries by as much as 25%.
The job of policymakers is to strike the right balance between such costs and benefits. On short-term business and tourist visas, they have failed. Take security. Visas, proponents say, keep countries safer by controlling who is able to enter. That is true, but they are not very efficient. Terrorists can be home-grown as well as foreign, qualify for visas (as the 9/11 attackers did) or slip across borders illegally. Imposing restrictions on the basis of nationality is the bluntest of instruments, scooping up legions of ordinary tourists and travellers as well as the occasional suspect. America’s decision to tighten the rules for anyone who has recently been to Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria will affect aid workers and plotters alike.
It is a similar story with unauthorised migration. Identifying visitors who might overstay their welcome is a core duty of visa officers. Western countries often require several months’ bank statements, pay slips, proof of financial and property holdings, tax returns and letters from bosses promising that their employees will return (see article). These strictures also put off legitimate travellers. When Canada lifted visa requirements for Czech citizens in 2007, the number of Czech tourists jumped by a third; when restrictions were reintroduced in 2009, after a rise in asylum applications, arrivals fell by 70% over three years. Rather than gumming up all travel, it made more sense to process asylum claims faster. The rules have subsequently been relaxed again.
Governments can take three steps to ease the burden of visas without simply throwing borders open to all-comers. The first is to slash the length of their forms. Britain, a grave offender when it comes to high fees and piles of paperwork, requires visa applicants to fill in a ten-page form, provide a list of every foreign trip over the past decade and declare that they have never incited terrorism to boot. This is absurd. Schengen-area bureaucrats in continental Europe manage to screen visitors in just two pages. America’s visa-waiver programme allows citizens of 28 countries to visit by filling out a simple online form with basic personal information.
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