Photograph by Dan Westergren, NGS; Composite by Traveler Magazine
International travel is unaffordable to many. And that’s bad news for everyone.
So travel is cheap, huh? Try telling that to Jim and Marjorie Hubert, who are planning a trip to Brazil next year for their 50th wedding anniversary. "It's been a rich emotional experience," laughs Jim Hubert, who lives in Tijeras, New Mexico. "Also, a very expensive one." The required visa and other paperwork has cost the couple $500 so far. And there was red tape. "Are Americans going to have to put up with this same expensive bureaucratic foolishness to go to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?" he wonders.
Maybe. If they do, then the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro could have the best-dressed crowd we've seen since Beijing, for which a visa was also required. But it cuts both ways. Consider what happened to Solange Barbosa, a Brazilian national who was invited to participate in a recent tourism conference in Washington, D.C. Organizers offered to cover her $131 visa fee, but the State Department rejected her application. The reason? Barbosa, an expert on Afro-Brazilian culture, was told she didn't make enough money.
International travel, and particularly travel to a country that requires a visa (more than 50 require them for Americans) doesn't exactly favor budget travelers. And that's a shame, because it's these people—backpackers, students, fixed-income retirees, experts on Afro-Brazilian culture—who should be going abroad, expanding their horizons, and sharing their knowledge with others.
The most common visa fees paid by U.S. citizens are for entry into the popular BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries and range from $75 to $200. Some, like Brazil's tourist visa fee (recently raised to $140), are reciprocal to that of the U.S., meaning that we imposed the fee first and Brazil responded by imposing its own. The money the U.S. collects supposedly covers the costs of providing visas, although much of it goes directly to the State Department for "consular operations." Earlier this year, the State Department quietly proposed an increase to its visa fees—raising certain surcharges from $45 to $74, for example.
The U.S. Travel Association, which represents the American tourism industry, is pressing the U.S. government to extend its visa waiver program to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, in an effort to encourage more people to visit the United States. Tourism officials say looser visa requirements translate directly into more inbound international visitors, which would directly benefit the domestic travel industry.
But visa requirements alone aren't to blame for keeping the middle class out of the United States. "It's not just money," says Roger Dow, the association's president. "It's time." For example, the waiting period for a visa to the U.S. from China ranges from 60 to 90 days. That's enough to keep many travelers away. How many? Dow believes eliminating current visa requirements could double the number of visitors from that country. At least that's been the case for Greece, the Czech Republic, and South Korea, which recently became visa-waiver countries, now numbering 36 in all. "You're potentially cutting off hundreds of thousands of Brazilian travelers a year because of the visa situation."
Passports also pose a roadblock. The State Department has proposed fee hikes that would require adult Americans applying for their first passport to pay $135—a 35 percent increase from the current $100 fee. The government says it needs more money to cover the cost of issuing passports. True, there's a less expensive "passport card" option, which will set you back only $45, but it can only be used to travel between the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports of entry. A $35 increase alone isn't enough to prevent most people from getting a passport, but multiply it by four, if you're taking the family south of the border for a warm-weather getaway, and that may be enough to keep you stateside.
There's more. Many countries also have poorly disclosed fees that must be paid when you arrive or leave. They're widespread in the Caribbean and Central America. In Nicaragua, you need a $5 "tourist card" to enter the country. Want to leave Guatemala? There's a $30 "exit tax." Belize? That'll be $35.
It isn't much better north of our border, where Canadian airports are fond of collecting so-called airport "improvement fees" before you leave the country. I got dinged for $15 in Vancouver recently. Montreal requires you to pay $25 before taking off, and Bathurst, New Brunswick, charges an eye-popping $40. These little extras tend to encourage those of us who are watching our bottom line (and let's face it, who isn't?) to think twice before going abroad.
There's a case to be made that these fees have a chilling effect on visits to and from the United States. Of the top ten destinations visited by Americans, two (Canada and Mexico) are accessible with a cheaper passport card and only one (China) requires a visa. How might that list change if more visa requirements were dropped? Or if, even, the passport card could be used in more countries? In fact, despite its slick appearance and lower cost, the passport card is so limited that I haven't heard a single travel expert endorse it for international travel; it gets you practically nowhere. It may not be a coincidence that a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that about half of all Americans say the United States should "mind its own business" and let other countries hash out problems on their own—the highest number in 40 years. That's not to say we're in danger of turning into another North Korea or any Iron Curtain–era Eastern European country, but by staying home and turning inward, we definitely become less informed. And maybe, less interesting.
We're better than that. A passport should be a birthright, not an expensive indulgence. Visas are relics that have no place in a global economy. It isn't the cost of international travel that should worry us. It's the cost of not traveling.