Opinion: US security changes turn up the heat on the travel industry

Sold any skiing holidays in the Rockies lately? Or new year shopping trips to New York?

If they are for departures to US airports on or after January 12, there is a possibility that your client will not be allowed on board the aircraft. From that date, a new barrier will be added to the increasingly complicated obstacle course that visitors to the US are obliged to tackle.

ESTA is set to become almost as familiar an acronym in the travel industry as ABTA or ATOL. It stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization, and means that every prospective traveller to the US needs to apply for permission to board an aircraft (or ship) at least three days in advance. It also signifies the chance that some passengers may be refused boarding.

This mandatory online registration system is a direct result of the September 11 terrorist attacks – the perpetrators of mass murder that day had all been legally admitted to the US.

The American authorities are determined that people with evil intent must be kept out, and the Department of Homeland Security believes the Visa Waiver Program jeopardises the nation’s defences.

The VWP started only 20 summers ago, with travellers from Britain and Japan the guinea pigs for travelling to America without red tape. Visa-free travel helped to fuel the impressive growth in visitor numbers to the US, and established the UK as the leading overseas market for Florida, California and beyond.

But on 9/11 the US was blasted out of its bureaucratic benevolence and, ever since, the needs of the travel industry have taken a distant second place to the demands of the security analysts.

British travellers have proved remarkably resilient in the face of intrusive demands for personal data, cheerfully submitting to being photographed and fingerprinted in order to visit the country that contains more modern wonders than any other.

But ESTA could represent a hurdle too far for some visitors, particularly high-spending travellers who want to fly to Manhattan, Florida or California on the spur of the moment.

As with every dark cloud that is gathering over the travel industry, there is a faint silver lining. Agents must remind travellers of the new rule, and add an additional service to their professional repertoire: registering technology-averse clients at (site opens on August 1).

Once authorisation is granted, the permission remains valid for two years. But agents also need to point out that permission confers only the right to board a US-bound aircraft or ship. Upon arrival in America, your problems are only just beginning.

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