ICHHTO Moves Against US Visa Policy Change

ICHHTO Moves Against US Visa Policy ChangeICHHTO Moves Against US Visa Policy Change

Masoud Soltanifar, the head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, has made good on his promise to follow up on recent changes made to the United States’ Visa Waiver Program (VWP) which may thwart Iran’s efforts to reclaim its status as a popular holiday destination.

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 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.

  A Political Move

In a letter written to Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, and Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, Soltanifar said the changes made to the VWP “go against the peaceful nature of tourism.”

“Clearly a politically-motivated move, the changes pose a challenge to the industry and threaten to hinder tourism objectives, which include the promotion of sustainable development,” Soltanifar said in the letter.

He continued: “Tourism aims to bridge cultural gaps and bring people closer, as evidenced by the UNWTO’s insistence on facilitation of travel.”

Soltanifar, who doubles as a vice president, urged Bokova and Rifai to “stand up for world peace, liberty and travelers’ freedom of choice, and warn the US against their blatant disregard for the global travel industry.”

The ICHHTO, however, has said that the new US visa policy is unlikely to have a “huge impact” on Iranian tourism because almost 50% of Iran’s inbound tourists come from regional countries.

  Kerry’s Assurance

The move to scrap visa-free travel for EU nationals may deter thousands of leisure and business tourists from visiting Iran, potentially unraveling strides made by the Rouhani administrations to develop the country’s economy and tourism.

However, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in a letter on Sunday that the Obama administration will find ways to ensure the changes to the VWP will not interfere with Iran’s business interests.

“We have a number of potential tools available to us, including multiple entry ten-year business visas, programs for expediting business visas, and the waiver authority provided under the new legislation [to President Obama],” Kerry wrote.

But Kerry’s remarks did not go down too well with Republicans in the US.

“Contrary to what the secretary of state seems to be saying to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, it was not and has never been Congress’s intent to allow the administration to grant a blanket waiver to travelers from Iran,” US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign ministry, said on Monday that Iran believes Kerry’s assurance “is credible enough”. Zarif has strongly criticized the latest US move as hostile and against the letter and spirit of the nuclear deal Tehran signed in July with the six world powers including the United States with which it does not have diplomatic relations for almost four decades.

 “Unfortunately, there are mixed signals coming from Washington, mostly negative signals, including the visa waiver program restrictions” Zarif said in an interview in New York last week where he was attending a UN meeting on the Syria crisis

“Now we await for the decision by the administration on how it wants to bring itself into compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA,” he said with reference to the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that puts curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanction imposed on Iran.