Depreciating America’s VWP

Depreciating America’s VWP  Depreciating America’s VWP

Recent changes to the United States Visa Waiver Program will inevitably impact Iran’s emerging tourism market, according to a senior official at the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (TCCIM).

Last month, the US Congress voted in support of the Visa Waiver Program Act of 2015 which 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 Obama administration signed the bill into law shortly after.

Iranian officials, namely Masoud Soltanifar, head of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, insist that the move is unlikely to dent Iran’s nascent tourism industry.

“Only 5% of the five million inbound travelers come from the countries affected by the changes,” Soltanifar said last month.

However, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, head of the Tourism Commission at TCCIM, believes Iran will inevitably feel the force of the VWP changes, but noted that the US government is “not too serious about the recent changes and seems to want to rectify the matter.”

Days after the visa policy changes were approved, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denounced the move and said it violated the July nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).

US Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to assure his Iranian counterpart that the changes would not harm Iran’s business interests and said the Obama administration has “a number of potential tools” at its disposal to skirt the unhelpful changes.

One such tool is the issuance of multiple entry ten-year business visas, which would allow businessmen from the 38 countries eligible to participate in the VWP to travel to Iran without having to worry about getting a new US visa.

Iran can take further measures, according to Mehralizadeh.

“We can issue landing slips, for instance, instead of stamping passports, thereby negating the VWP changes,” he said, according to the Persian daily Donya-e-Eqtesad.

Calling the visa policy changes “tyrannical,” Mehralizadeh said hardliners in the US, “mostly influenced by the Zionist lobby,” are doing everything in their power to torpedo the landmark nuclear deal, and “we must not play into their hands.”

“Naturally, the best way to counter what’s happened is for the Foreign Ministry to use diplomatic channels to pressure the US government into reversing the changes altogether, thereby sending a signal that we won’t accept anything that violates the nuclear agreement,” he said.

  Their Loss, Our Gain

Saudi Arabia’s execution on January 2 of outspoken Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr who called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family triggered international condemnation and set off protests throughout the Middle East. Demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set the building on fire.

A day later, the oil-rich kingdom cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, a move followed by several of its allies.

“They basically shot themselves in the foot, and that’s good for our tourism,” Mehralizadeh said.

The political chaos, instability and insecurity in the region makes Iran one of the few countries in the Middle East that is both safe and stable; criteria of pivotal importance to tourists, the senior official added.

“With the right marketing, we’ll be able to persuade people who normally travel to one of the other regional countries to visit Iran,” Mehralizadeh said, adding that Saudi Arabia and its allies are bound to see a drop in their inbound tourist arrivals.