At last the EU is starting to realize that its visa policy is hurting potential tourism revenue – but not for the reasons that they claim.
On November 7th, last week, the charming and ebullient European Commission Member, Cecelia Malström gave a press conference with her colleague, EC Vice-President Antonio Tajani. The subject of the press conference was a proposed revision of visa policy. The change in policy comes after the EU Commission discovered that “21% of potential tourists”, or nearly three million tourists per year, are discouraged from applying for a visa due to the visa application process itself.
“The EU could gain 46 million tourists by 2015 if the flexibility of the visa rules were exploited”, claimed Ms Malström. “If we could get them to apply,” said Ms Malström, “Europe could create 500,000 jobs in the next three years.” According to Mr Tajani, such an increase of tourism would add hundreds of billions of euros to the economy.
These potential tourists don’t apply, according to Ms Malström, “because it’s complicated to get a visa”.
That might be part of the problem. But it misses a much greater point. The reason people don’t apply for a visa to visit Europe is because they fear an unjust and arbitrary visa process. People don’t apply because they’ve seen their friends refused a visa for no intelligible reason and they don’t want to suffer that humiliation.
Frustration and humiliation greeted one applicant last month when his application was refused. Net, a Thai male, aged 25, applied for a visa at the French Consulate in Bangkok. He was planning to travel to France with his friend and business associate, Marcus, who owns several medical clinics in Australia. Net does offshore data processing in Thailand for one of Marcus’s Australian companies that processes insurance claims.
Net and Marcus were planning to visit Europe for several weeks. They would be joined by a colleague from Australia. Marcus is a frequent visitor to Europe. Last year he spent around 30,000 euros on travel in Euorpe. “I like to shop in the Place de la Concorde,” he told me.
Net’s application was prepared by a travel consultancy. According to Marcus, “It was a sure thing.” But alas, in the world of Schengen visa applications there is no such thing as a sure thing. Net’s visa was refused. The stock “reason” was given:
“The information supplied justifying the purpose and conditions of stay was not reliable.”
Marcus attempted to find out what this meant. He managed to breach the security surrounding the visa section of the consulate. He waited outside the glass doors. He refused to be fobbed off by the security guard. He accosted the first European to walk out of the door.
“What do you want?” asked the official.
“I just want someone to review Net’s file fairly. Clearly, that hasn’t been done.”
The official agreed to have the file reconsidered and instructed Net to make an appointment. Five days later Net and Marcus went back to the consulate. But there was no review of Net’s file. He was merely told to apply again. He wasn’t told the specific reason why his application was refused,.nor was he given any information that would increase his confidence that the visa would be granted next time. A second application would therefore amount to another roll of the dice and another visa fee.
Marcus, bitter and frustrated, cancelled the trip. He and Net live in Chiangmai. In order to make a second application they would have to fly to Bangkok. They had already spent five days waiting for the appointment which came to nothing. If the visa were refused again Marcus would forfeit three thousand euros in airline cancellation charges.
So Europe loses 30,000 euros and the reputation of a cruel and arbitrary visa application process is perpetuated.
According to Ms Malström, “For many people the first encounter with Europe is the consulate. We need to ensure that the Visa Code is properly applied so that the encounter is positive.”
Ms Malström, the Visa Code is not properly applied and the first encounter is often bitter.
“We have to implement the rules that are already there in the Visa Code and make it easier for bona fide travelers to come to Europe,” said Ms Malström. She cited appointment deadlines and simplifying supporting documents as the way to “make it easier” for bona fide tourists.
Ms Malström, you are right that the Visa Code needs to be properly applied if you want to reach your target by 2015. But simplifying procedures is not the answer. If you want to attract more tourist-euros you must persuade potential tourists that the visa application process is fair and transparent. To do that you must implement the fundamental rights that are guaranteed to visa applicants by law but which are often ignored by consulates.
The Visa Code incorporates the fundamental rights “enshrined” in the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the EU. Chief of these fundamental rights is The Right to Good Administration (Article 41). According to this fundamental right applicants for a visa should be given a chance to be heard and correct any defect before their visa is refused. They should not be told to guess the reason for the refusal and keep applying until they get it right.
By refusing Net’s visa, the French Consulate breached his fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Visa Code. Net should have been called for an interview if the consulate found the information that he submitted unreliable. The consulate should have made an effort to discover whether Net is, in fact, a bona fide traveller. They did not. If, after a hearing, the consulate decided to refuse the visa, Net should have been given a real reason for the refusal; not the incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo “the information supplied justifying the purpose and conditions of intended stay is not reliable.”
Simplifying the application procedure would be welcome by visa applicants. But it will not change the reputation of the application process as opaque, arbitrary and foreboding. Only by respecting the fundamental rights guaranteed to visa applicants by the Visa Code will the European Commission change that reputation and achieve its goal of adding 500,000 jobs and raising billions in additional tourist revenue. Anything less is mere tinkering.