ICHHTO Decries US Visa Policy Change

ICHHTO Decries US Visa Policy ChangeICHHTO Decries US Visa Policy Change

In a statement published Sunday, Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization denounced a new US law that imposes restrictions on people who have traveled to Iran in the past five years.

After the November 13 terror attacks in Paris and as part of wider anti-terror efforts, the US House of Representatives voted on December 8 in support of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015.

The bill was approved by the Senate on Friday and signed into law by President Obama on Saturday. The new law bars people who traveled after March 1, 2011 to Iraq and Syria — as well as Iran and Sudan — from participating in the visa-free program.

The move to scrap visa-free travel for EU nationals may deter thousands of leisure and business tourists from visiting Iran, which by far is the most politically-stable country in the region.

However, in a defiant statement, the organization said, “Since about 50% of Iran’s inbound tourists come from regional countries, the new law is unlikely to put a dent in the country’s tourism sector.”

ICHHTO said it would cooperate with international tourism regulatory bodies, as well as the Foreign Ministry, “to neutralize the possible impact of US lawmakers’ absurd move.”

  Too Little, Too Late

In a letter to Masoud Soltanifar, Iran’s vice president for tourism and head of the ICHHTO, tour operators urged him to “find a way around” the controversial visa policy changes.

“We urge you to explore diplomatic avenues to remedy the situation,” the letter said.

“The Rouhani administration has made great strides in putting Iran back on the map, and the country is gradually becoming a top destination for tourists and investors alike — but the new US bill threatens to unravel all that the government has so far accomplished.”

Speaking to ISNA, Ebrahim Pourfaraj, head of the Iranian Tour Operators’ Association, said the bill will have an adverse effect on Iran’s gradually emerging travel industry.

“It could set us back … we may witness a 70% drop in inbound tourism from Europe,” he said.

The letter — the only action taken by Iranian travel agents so far — was written very late, highlighting a lack of urgency in addressing an issue with significantly adverse effects on the  travel industry and domestic economy that have put high hope in the revival of tourism to plug big holes in the national budget as a result of the plunging oil prices since the summer of 2014.

“[The letter] was written very late. The issue had been making headlines for weeks, but unfortunately the powers that be left it too late,” said Ali Faraji, a member of the ITOA.

“The association is run by people who are oblivious to the goings-on of the world. Our plea should have been made much earlier, and it should have received global coverage.”

Before the bill was signed into law by President Obama, the ICHHTO itself had failed to address what some call a sabotage of Iran’s tourism industry.

This is while Iranian netizens did not shy away from criticizing the discriminatory bill, and went as far as staging online campaigns on social media to derail the bill, to no avail.


Last week, Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign minister, said the ministry would take action if the visa legislation was found to be in breach of the nuclear deal, signed in July between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, France, Britain plus Germany).

European Union diplomats involved in the nuclear accord also fear that the move may violate the deal.

They believe that by obliging executives who have visited Iran to apply for a visa if they want to travel to the US, the bill could breach a commitment in the nuclear deal to avoid steps that damage the “normalization” of economic ties with Iran, according to the Financial Times.

Diplomats from the 28-member EU on Monday warned they could respond in kind if the United States makes good on plans to end visa-free entry for some EU nationals.

“Such indiscriminate action against the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the US each year would be counterproductive, could trigger legally mandated reciprocal measures, and would do nothing to increase security while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic,” EU Ambassador to the US David O’Sullivan said in an editorial in The Hill, on behalf of ambassadors to the US of EU member states.

The Visa Waiver Program is available to citizens of 38 countries, largely US allies and relatively stable developed democracies. Many are in Europe, including Belgium and France, the home countries of several of the Paris attackers.

Twenty million visitors a year enter the North American country under the scheme for stays of up to 90 days.

Created in 1986 to help facilitate travel to the US, the program allows applicants to fill out a detailed form online and pay a small fee, rather than apply at US consulates.

Obama used his veto power to scrap only two measures passed by Congress, neither of which were the new visa rules.

Since Obama has already signed the bill into law, it remains to be seen how Iranian and EU official will respond.