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Simplifying short-stay visa applications to increase tourism

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Europe is already the world’s No 1 tourist destination. But in an effort to tap into emerging markets and ensure the continued growth of tourism-related industries, the European Commission is spearheading reforms to make it even easier for international tourists to visit the EU.

Known around the globe for its wealth of natural, cultural and artistic heritage, Europe has long been the world’s top tourist destination. But in order to fully capitalise on its international reputation, the EU’s tourism sector needs to target fast-growing and emerging markets, where a rapidly expanding middle-class has greater purchasing power and an eagerness to travel.

The tourism sector employs nearly 20 million people in the EU and has links to other key sectors, such as culture, food, fashion, construction and transport. The continued growth of tourism can help to quickly remedy the emergency created by youth unemployment, which exceeds 50 % in some European areas. As European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani said: ‘In the midst of the most severe economic crisis since the Second World War, we must take full advantage of tourism’s potential to drive economic growth.’

In 2011, tourists from non-EU countries spent about €400 billion in the EU. This figure is estimated to reach €500 billion by 2020 – if, that is, Europe is able to continue attracting tourists from places like Latin America, China, India and Russia. In recent years, the number of Brazilian and Russian tourists visiting the EU has doubled, while flows from China and India are increasing rapidly.

Visa procedures hamper tourism

Even with the steady influx of tourists, potential visitors are often discouraged by the complex and lengthy procedures necessary to obtain visas to enter the EU. Many obstacles deter tourists, including the need to make an appointment and in-person visit at a consular office, as well as the requirement to collect a complex series of documents and translations. These problems are compounded by inadequate consular coverage in certain geographical regions.

Recent studies indicate that Europe could have up to 46 million additional international arrivals by 2015, resulting in an increase of €60 billion and the creation of half a million jobs. But this will only be possible if the Schengen Area, a 26-nation partnership designed to facilitate free movement between countries, further harmonises its regulatory collaboration.

To help remove hurdles faced by overseas tourists and make Europe an even more attractive destination, the European Commission has proposed a revision of the Schengen Area’s Visa Code. Fully respecting the security aspects which continue to form one of the pillars of the EU’s visa policy, the reform will focus on the introduction of mandatory services for people who often travel in the Schengen Area, and make better use of the possibilities offered by the visa information system. An increased use of telematic technologies will simplify the visa application process, and consular capacity will also be increased.

Reforms will make travelling easier

An important element of the EC’s plans is distinct application procedures based on whether visitors are travelling for business or leisure, the latter of which could include the many festivals, sporting events and cultural institutes that enhance the image of European cities. Too often, problems obtaining visas limit access and – as a result – limit the potential economic benefits of tourist attractions. For instance, the Milan World Expo in 2015 may be an opportunity for millions of new visitors to Europe, but only if they can obtain the necessary visas.

Some countries already actively promote tourism from non-EU countries. Italy has increased its consular capacity in China, resulting in a 100 % increase in the number of visas granted, while Poland implemented a ‘fast-track’ procedure for visa applications of those hoping to attend the 2012 European Football Championship. Outside the EU, Australia has several types of visas which vary depending on the purpose and length of stay, and which can be processed online. In the USA, President Barack Obama himself set up a task force in January 2012 to increase the USA’s capacity to process visas for China and Brazil by 40%.

International competition is becoming increasingly fierce as a growing number of countries rely on tourism as a tool for growth and economic well-being. In this context, the simplification of visa applications and allocations is vital to allow the EU to fully exploit its enormous potential as an artistic, cultural and tourist destination.

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