European visa pre-approval and €7 fees – will the EU's new rules for travellers take off?

Entry for 58 nationalities is changing across the continent next year. Industry experts share what it means for tourism and visitors

Italy is one of 30 European countries that will require travellers to apply for a visa online before their trip. Reuters
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With entry rules to the EU set to change for 1.4 billion people, the tourism industry is weighing up the pros and cons of the decision.

Here, The National speaks to travel booking platforms, market research companies and tourism bodies to analyse the move.

Introducing the Etias

UAE passport holders enjoy privileged status when it comes to travel, currently enjoying visa-free access to 179 countries, according to this year’s Henley Passport Index.

But that’s set to change as part of the new rules, which also affect arrivals from the UK and the US.

From mid-2024, non-EU travellers currently exempt from obtaining a visa to visit the Schengen area will have to pay a fee and apply for online travel authorisation before their trip.

Similar to the US's Esta programme, the new European scheme means non-EU travellers will have to fill in a form and pay €7 ($7.80) before entering Europe’s passport-free zone. The online service will apply to travellers between the ages of 18 and 70, and be valid for multiple visits of up to 90 days over a three-year period.

Dubbed the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, or Etias, the European Commission's new e-visa-style system will be required for travel to 30 countries across Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, Greece and France. The full list of countries is available here.

The system is being implemented as part of a broader strategy by the EU to “provide a seamless and digital travel experience, tighten up security and facilitate entry and exit across the region whilst raising much-needed revenue”, explains Caroline Bremner, head of travel research at Euromonitor International.

“The electronic scheme is also an attempt to remove confusion to travellers across the EU and Schengen zone where it is not always clear which countries belong to which,” she tells The National.

Impact on travel too early to call

Travel experts and industry insiders are divided over the effect on tourism and travellers.

Dubai company dnata, part of the Emirates group, says it is "too early for us to comment" at this stage.

Low-cost airline flydubai tells The National it recognises the coming change, but did not elaborate on how this might impact travel between the UAE and European nations.

“Flydubai follows the guidelines outlined by the relevant authorities with regard to the documentation passengers require for travel and we will follow the guidelines as they come into effect,” a representative adds.

However, additional fees and having to plan ahead could put some people off travelling, says Bremner.

“The introduction of the Etias travel authorisation is going to add a new complication to travelling to Europe for the countries that were previously visa-free," she says.

Despite this, the impact will be minimal, she believes.

“The majority of the EU’s visitors are intra-EU visitors," she adds. "Arrivals to Europe are not forecast to see a drop and will continue to grow at 17 per cent in 2024 to 785 million, thanks to Europe’s continuing appeal as a diverse destination for visitors despite challenges such as the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the new travel facilitation requirements.”

Known for its pristine beaches, traditional cuisine and cities filled with art and culture, Spain is a destination that is confident that new travel procedures won't negatively impact inbound travel.

“We don’t expect Etias to have a great impact on travel demand,” Daniel Rosado Bayon, director of Spain Tourism GCC, says. "It’s easy, not expensive and it will help to make the whole process at the border easier.

"This process already exists for other countries, such as the US, Canada or Australia, and it doesn’t deter people from travelling.

“The Arab heritage and the culture we share make Spain a destination that’s close to the hearts of people in the GCC."

He adds: "I don’t think this easy, inexpensive and fast process will get in the way for travellers."

UK to trial similar system for GCC travellers

Industry experts also suggest the scheme could simplify life for travellers.

Currently, many have to wait in long queues during peak travel times at EU border controls. With a pre-approved system in place, these procedures could become smoother and faster.

That’s something that Gavin Landry, international director of VisitBritain, is hoping for ahead of the UK rolling out a similar system later this year.

The UK's Electronic Travel Authorisation will launch in October with travellers from Qatar being the first to access online applications. It will then be rolled out across the GCC and, if deemed successful, the rest of the world.

“Any type of improvement on the border, or improved ways of getting into the country always has positive signs,” Landry says.

“A couple of years ago, when we set up e-gates for certain nationalities coming to the UK, we saw a spike in volume. When things are more seamless and frictionless for the traveller, the traveller responds,” he adds.

While the UK's ETA will be valid for two years, Europe's Etias has a longer validity and is not linked to one particular trip. This could provide travellers with the freedom needed to plan multiple trips to the continent, without worrying about additional paperwork and approval processes each time.

“The Etias lasts for three years and will help to boost short-stay leisure and domestic trips in Europe for those travellers willing to go through the process,” says Bremner, who backs the EU's move.

“With international tourism spending expected to exceed $1 trillion in Europe by 2028, the EU’s desire for a digital and seamless travel facilitation process is likely to pay off.”

Know more about the new Etias programme

First announced in 2016, Etias has been delayed several times, but is currently on track to start next year, although the exact date has yet to be confirmed.

In most cases, approval for travel is expected to be granted within minutes of online application, but travellers are advised to apply as far in advance as possible as some applications may take up to four days to process. Other applicants may also be asked to provide additional information or attend an interview, which could delay approval timing up to 30 days.

Approval is required for travel to 30 countries across Europe. Visitors heading to Ireland – also a member of the EU – do not need to apply for Etias as the country remains exempt, while Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – EU members that are not part of the Schengen area – will require the document.

No biometric information will be requested from travellers applying for Etias. Instead, holidaymakers will have to submit personal information, travel plans, details on any criminal convictions and list family ties with any European citizens.

When it launches, Europe's Etias programme will also have an impact on countries' ratings in the Henley Passport Index, which ranks the world’s passports according to the number of destinations holders can access without obtaining a prior visa.

“The introduction of Etias will have a significant effect on the visa-free scores, and hence the ranking, of the Henley Passport Index as our methodology is designed with the lived experience of the traveller in mind,” a representative for Henley & Partners, which compiles the data, says. "So any access that requires some form of pre-departure government approval is a scenario we would not consider to be visa-free."

Updated: July 26, 2023, 2:58 PM