Move to Minimize Potential VWP Impact

Move to Minimize  Potential VWP ImpactMove to Minimize  Potential VWP Impact

Despite tourism officials’ insistence that recent changes made to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will not undermine Iran’s tourism industry, Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization has set up a working group tasked with mitigating the possible impact of the move on the travel sector.

Called the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015, the new rules impose a visa requirement on the citizens of 38 countries subject to the VWP who traveled to Iran, Syria, Iraq and Sudan after March 1, 2011.

The changes were made in the wake of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris and as part of the North American country’s wider anti-terror efforts. Twenty million visitors a year enter the United States under the scheme for stays of up to 90 days.

The bill was approved in the US House of Representatives on December 8 and signed into law 10 days later.

In a meeting at the ICHHTO head office in Tehran, attended by tourism managers and academics, as well as representatives from the Foreign Ministry and Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Mines, the formation of a working group comprising members of the public and private sectors to devise ways to thwart the visa rules was approved.

  Special Incentives

ICHHTO chief, Masoud Soltanifar, suggested providing special incentives to the nationals of the 38 countries affected by the new VWP rules as a means to negate the effects of the changes, seen as provocative and irresponsible by most observers (not necessarily friends of Iran) in the 38 nations, namely in the EU.

Emphasizing the need for urgent action at damage control, the official said, “Cooperation with the Foreign Ministry is imperative to moving forward with our plans.”

Iran hosted five million foreign tourists last year, of which only 162,000, or 3.24%, came from of the 38 countries; a fact which — according to Soltanifar — means that the changes are unlikely to affect the emerging tourism sector.

“But in line with our goal of expanding political and cultural ties with Europe, we need to make sure the new rules will not hinder our efforts.”

Soltanifar, who doubles as vice president, on Wednesday wrote to Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, and Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, urging them 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.”

  Shifting Priorities

Nevertheless, some in Iran believe the organization should focus its time and energy on the fundamental flaws in the sector.

“I think the ministry is handling the situation well,” Mohammad Hassan Kermani, the head of the Association of Air Transport and Tourist Agencies of Iran said.

“It would be better if we did not interfere with their business and instead focus on issues closer to home, such as devising effective plans and programs to develop the sector.”

He dismissed the visa dilemma as a “political hurdle that is all too common,” and urged tourism authorities in Tehran to address the industry’s “age-old problems.”

Whereas the ICHHTO was strangely silent until the visa bill was signed into law, the Foreign Ministry quickly went public shortly after news of the visa bill made headlines and voiced opposition to the unnecessary and unhelpful changes.

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

“Now we wait 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.

Furthermore, diplomats from the 28-member EU have warned they could respond in kind if the United States makes good on plans to end visa-free entry for EU nationals.

However, US Secretary of State John Kerry assured Zarif in a letter last weekend that the Obama administration “has a number of tools available” that can help ensure the visa rules will not interfere with Iran’s business interests.

But his remarks did not go down too well with Republicans in the US, who are accusing the White House of “ignoring congressional intent” and the “spirit of the law” in offering reassurances to Iran about new visa rules.