Today marks the beginning of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new system of registering travelers flying to America. Now, instead of the green I-94 card usually filled out on the plane, non-U.S. travelers are required to go online and enter their details into the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before flying out. While the measure is supposed to tighten security and minimize the amount of potential terrorists into the country, it is also bound to limit another rather important group – tourists.
While in Paris last week, I stayed with a French friend who lived in America for almost 20 years. She has a son living there, who is an American citizen, and mountains of friends. She also rents out an apartment in Boston to earn a little spending money. Thus, she goes back to the U.S. every couple months. She is planning to fly to Florida tomorrow. With all these American connections, I assumed she knew about the new flying requirements.
Not so. This regular traveler was not au courant and, worse, her airline company – American Airlines – did not notify her about the need to register before boarding. Her only knowledge of the new rule came from me, a journalist who had written about the story myself a few months ago. Luckily, we just happened to be in touch mere days before her flight.
How is the average citizen supposed to know about yet another one of America’s entry regulations if no one informs them? If airlines aren’t telling customers, travelers are left to their own devices – be that the random newspaper article, radio news bite or hearsay. But even the hearsay doesn’t seem credible. My friend didn’t believe me when I told her the news, as she (like me) found the new rule to be ludicrous and truly over-the-top.
I’ve already written about how ineffective the ESTA process will most likely turn out to be. Last minute travelers, those on business, people flying out for emergencies or those without internet access will find themselves stopped at the gate with no promise of a flight out of town. The DHS says they have a plan for those leaving at the last minute, but this is assuming travelers don’t have problems with the background name checks, which have a history of being inaccurate.
And what about those just thinking about a trip to the States? Perhaps many potential tourists will consider this latest inconvenience just too annoying to deal with and will scrap their trips altogether.
Yes, America faced and faces terrorism. Yes, we were sabotaged by murderous airplanes. But America is taking the “once bitten, twice shy” slogan much too far, hindering life for the average tourist. And while the U.S. needs to take precautions at the airport, it can’t forget that most terrorists will drop the bomb where no one is looking. All this focus on 3 ounce liquids and name checks leaves even more room for an unexpected attack on a location none of us have even thought of yet.
This week will be a test of the ESTA system, a chance for the U.S. government to see if the pain equals the gain. It will also be a time for tourists to speak out about the efficiency of the system and whether traveling to America is still worth it. And to all those travelers who get turned away at the gate for not registering online beforehand? Well, who could blame them? After all, no one has told them what the heck is going on.