The introduction of a new surcharge for travelers to the United States has drawn the ire of the European Commission, which has called the levy "regrettable" and "inconsistent" with visa-free travel.
EU calls new US fee a visa through the back door
Travelers who do not require visas for the United States - such as most citizens of Europe, including Germany, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan - must pay a $14 tax (11 euros) starting Wednesday.
Travelers from so-called Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries "must pay operational and travel promotion fees" when applying for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, US authorities announced.
ESTA is an electronic registration form for overseas visitors and has been required for travelers from VWP countries since January, 2009.
EU set to challenge new US rules
The European Union Home Affairs Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstroem, has warned that the new US fees amounted to introducing visas through the backdoor.
Fee is "inconsistent with transatlantic mobility," says Malmstroem
"I have repeatedly raised concerns about this fee and I remain convinced that these new requirements…are inconsistent with the commitment of the US to facilitate transatlantic mobility and will be an additional onus for European citizens traveling to the US," Malmstroem said in a statement.
Malmstroem also said that the EU would carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the ESTA program, once the US authorities publish the final rules.
But, Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, speaking to Deutsche Welle, said on Wednesday that if the US didn't drop the fee, the EU might take other action.
"I think we can only talk to the Americans that they get rid of it; that we convince them, or, that we come up with retaliation measures," he said.
Under pressure, US parries criticism
Jacqueline Bednarz, from the US Homeland Security Agency, defended the new practice at a press conference on Wednesday.
Europeans have grown accustomed to visa-free travel
"We're very confident that the system is fast and easy and very user-friendly for travelers applying for an ESTA to come to the US through the Visa Waiver Program. We certainly are ready and see this as a great way to promote tourism to our country," Bednarz said.
Questions on the ESTA form include whether a passenger has a communicable disease, a physical or mental disorder, abuses drugs, has been convicted a certain crimes, or been involved in espionage, terrorism or genocide.
In Europe, the system is viewed as invasive and bureaucratic
Contrary to US opinion, Europeans view the system as an oversized bureaucratic annoyance. And the new tourist tax adds insult to injury for Europeans wanting to go to the US, said Iris Bellingrodt, a German travel agent in Kerpen near Cologne, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
"It's another point they do to make people angry to go to the US. ESTA is a thing people don't like anyway, because they have to answer so many questions. And now, they have to pay for what the government wants them to do," she said.
Bellingrodt said she didn't think the new fee would keep people from going to the US because it was minimal compared to the total cost of such a trip. But she does think it means more paperwork for her business.
"In our travel agency, it's service for our customers that we fill out the ESTA form, but now, since it costs money we will go on doing this, but only with their own credit cards because if we charge the amount with our card we have to print an invoice or something. This all makes much more paperwork, so we would have to take another fee for this," said Bellingrodt.
Author: Gregg Benzow
Editor: Nancy Isenson