The end of an era – and the dawn of a new one

Tourism Alliance director Kurt Janson on the benefits of a proposed new travel authorisation system.

If there is one certainty that can be drawn from the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, it’s that security procedures for international travel will continue to be tightened and that the era of relatively easy, visa-waiver travel is a step closer to ending. Having to apply for authority to enter many foreign countries will increasingly become the new norm.

Electronic Travel Authorities are not new; the USA introduced their ESTA scheme back in 2009. It has been followed by similar schemes in other countries such as Canada and Australia. Late last year the European Commission put forward proposals to introduce a similar scheme for the members of the Schengen area to help counter continued terrorist attacks and cope with the high number of migrants and refugees entering Europe.

What the European Commission is proposing is to set up an automated system that would gather information on visa-waiver travellers prior to their arrival, in order to determine any irregular migration, security or public-health risks.

European Travel Information and Authorisation System

The system, called the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), would require applicants to fill in an online application providing their biographical and passport data, contact details, information on intended travel, and answers to background questions relating to public health risks, criminal records, presence in war zones and any previous refusals of entry to gain authority to travelling to the Schengen area

The proposed cost of the ETIAS application is €5, and the authorisation will last for five years, so frequent visitors to the Schengen area will not have to complete an authorisation for every trip.

Although this proposal has not yet been agreed and there is currently no timetable for implementation, recent terrorist attacks will only increase the resolve of proponents to make sure that this initiative is taken forward.

As the UK is outside the Schengen area, and with Brexit only couple of years away, it would seem logical that UK nationals travelling to the EU will have to apply for an ETIAS in future.

The second logical consequence is that it is likely that the UK government will also put forward proposals for an Electronic Travel Authority scheme which will apply to foreign nationals travelling to the UK.

Apart for the security benefits, is also likely that the UK government will want to use such a system to check whether visitors from some EU countries are trying to enter the UK to live and work illegally.

Logistical problem

However, the introduction of a travel authority system for foreign nationals travelling to the UK comes with significant logistical problems. At the moment, 23 million visitors come to the UK each year from other EU destinations. This represents 67% of all visitors to the UK.

If these visitors, rather than entering through the current EU channel, had to present themselves to a desk to have their travel authorisation checked, the 200% increase in the workload generated would simply overwhelm Border Forces’ resources. Not to mention the fact that there simply wouldn’t be room in the immigration halls for visitors to wait.

The only solution to this problem is enable people with Travel Authorities to use the e-passport gates so that they can process themselves.

This solution comes with a number of benefits. The Home Office’s Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for processing visitors at immigration desks is that 90% of visitors should be processed within 45mins. However, the KPI for e-passport gates is that 90% of visitors to be processed within 25 mins. This means that if we introduced Travel Authorities for non-EU nationals we could promote this in overseas markets as a way of reducing visitors’ waiting times at UK airports.

Further benefits

A further potential benefit of introducing Travel Authorities is that they could be used to target high value visitors from countries that require a visa to travel to the UK such as China and India. That is, potential visitors from China or India could be invited to apply for a Travel Authority rather than a visa.

Those that achieve a requisite standard would be granted the Travel Authority and can travel to the UK using and use the e-passport gates. Those that do not meet the requisite standard would simply default back to applying for a visa and enter the UK through an immigration desk.

So rather than the blunt “one size fits all” system we have at the moment, whereby either everyone in a country needs a visa or nobody in a country needs a visa, we have a more sophisticated system that assesses visitors on the basis of risk and reduces the amount of time that Border Force officers have to spend processing low risk visitors.

Using Travel Authorities could also be linked with the work of the government’s Events Industry Board to identify and offer a bespoke welcome to delegates and attendees to trade shows and congresses, thereby boosting business tourism.

So while it looks likely that the visa-waiver travel era could soon end, if we introduced a flexible, risk-based Travel Authority system, it could be the dawn of considerable opportunities for increasing tourism to the UK.