An electronic registration process for travelers to the United States from participating Visa Waiver Program countries could hurt both tourism and business to and from the U.S., Urs Ziswiler, Switzerland’s ambassador to the U.S., told GlobalAtlanta.

The Visa Waiver Program, which currently allows citizens of 27 countries to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without a visa, is in the process of being reformed under the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007–the so-called “9/11 bill” signed into law at the beginning of August.

The main component of the altered Visa Waiver Program involves the new Electronic Travel Authorization system, an online process that requires travelers to provide general personal information to the U.S. government to be checked against security databases.

“The ETA would involve a Web site where a VWP traveler would go and submit the same type of information that you or I would use when purchasing an airline ticket,” said Russ Knocke, a press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, the organization handling the reform process.

Although he said that the organization is “still working through the mechanics” of the reform, Mr. Knocke believes that the ETA would have minimal effects on businesspeople. In fact, he said that adding the new measures helps defend the VWP program from congressional critics who think it’s too lax on security.

Mr. Ziswiler is not so sure. Coming from a country where America’s image is steadily deteriorating, he seemed to think that the ETA is an unnecessary inconvenience that could add fuel to the fire of anti-U.S. sentiment.

“I think its particularly difficult for people who are not used to using laptops or elderly people who want to visit their kids or their fellow families (in the U.S.),” Mr. Ziswiler said.

“Older people have more money to travel so it’s also…bad for the American economy,” he added, also saying that the regulations could hurt both business and tourism.

Florian Stamm, a native of Germany and a specialist in international and corporate law at Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP, also thinks the reformed program could hurt the U.S.’ image abroad, but that the full effect of the law on business will only be certain once Homeland Security rolls out a more detailed plan.

Businesspeople who can plan travel in advance should not be too heavily inconvenienced, but Mr. Stamm thinks the new process could seriously hamper those who must travel spontaneously in order to attend to urgent business, a situation he encountered with one of his clients recently.

And the extent to which these travelers will be inconvenienced will depend on the registration deadline required by Homeland Security before the travel occurs.

“I would say if this authorization could be done at the airport it would be good because you wouldn’t have to do it ahead of time, but the best solution is to not have to have it all,” said Mr. Stamm, who added that there has to be processing time for the regulation to be effective.

Mr. Stamm also wondered how long the ETA would validate travel to the U.S. The statutory maximum is three years, and he said the longer, the better.

Mr. Knocke said that as Homeland Security fleshes out more details about the new system, the department will enter into dialogue with officials like Mr. Ziswiler and others in government to address these issues.

Mr. Knocke said it was unclear whether the costs of operating the Web site and the databases would be passed on to the traveler or budgeted by the government.

In addition to the ETA system, the 9/11 law also tightens the requirements for information-sharing between countries and agencies and adds new criteria for countries being considered for the Visa Waiver Program.

In a “tit-for-tat” measure “typical of international law,” the European Union has already begun to reevaluate its Visa Waiver Status for U.S. travelers, said Mr. Stamm.

He thinks the new program will probably provide nominal security but said that “the whole program is only going to be as good as the database it’s checked against.”
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Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP – Florian Stamm, international and corporate law 404-815-3719