On April 16, a round table ‘Schengen visa liberalisation policy towards Belarus and Belarus-EU cooperation in the field of tourism’ took place in the European Parliament. The event was organised by the vice-chairman of the Delegation for relations with Belarus, Latvian MEP Aldis Kuskis (EPP-ED group), in cooperation with the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels).
The working meeting brought together representatives of the European Parliament and Commission, the Group of National Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association within the EU (ECTAA), the Association of Latvian Travel Agents (ALTA), directors of several Belarusian travel agencies, chairman of the board of the National Association of Tourist Organisations of Belarus, journalists and other interested parties.
In his opening statement, Aldis Kuskis said he believed the liberalisation of visa policy towards Belarus was an important issue for everyone in Belarus and in the EU. Easier travel regulations would help spreading European values among Belarusian and would bring some economic benefits to both Europe and Belarus. He stressed, however, that both sides would have to take some important steps to achieve this goal: while the EU would have to make some real progress towards relaxation of the visa regime, Belarus should continue carrying out reforms towards democratisation of the political regime.
Delegates from Belarus, Barys Vlasau of the Merlin Tour travel agency and Aliaksandr Mirski of the Sakub Travel, described difficulties faced by Belarusians when obtaining a Schengen visa. They spoke about a very long list of documents requested by embassies for the visa application, an excessively long period it takes for a visa to be issued, and a high visa fee which amounts to a sustainable part of an average salary in the country. Olga Stuzhinskaya, director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus, added that Belarus is the only country on the EU Eastern neighbourhood, whose citizens pay 60 euro fee for a Schengen visa while Russians and Ukrainians pay only 35 euro.
Representatives of Belarusian travel agencies offered data that has been collected by the National Association of Tourist Organisations of Belarus showing the negative consequences of the Schengen area expansion on the tourism sector. For example, since 2007 the number of trips to Poland booked via agencies dropped by 90%, while sales for holiday packages to Croatia and France decreased by 88% and 47% correspondingly. In general, the number of travellers to EU countries went down by 66%. Belarusian travel agencies stressed that the current EU visa policy causes great losses also to the EU tourism and service businesses affecting mostly the new EU member states.
The visa policy officer from the Directorate General on Justice, Freedom and Security of the European Commission Anne-Marie Soerensen explained that the Schengen zone is a common space of free circulation within 25 states and requires high level of security. A common set of rules and conditions is being applied by the states signatories to the Schengen agreement.
Mrs Soerensen expressed her hope that the situation with Schengen visas for Belarusian citizens would improve with the recently adopted new visa code. According to the document, visa application fees would be cut by 50 % for 6- to 12-year-old children; visa fees would be waived for certain categories of citizens, including students; multiple entry visas would be issued more often for frequent travellers. EU authorities also plan to introduce standardised application documents, with collected biometric and digital data remaining valid for 5 years, and a common Schengen visa information system.
Mr Michel de Blust, Secretary General of the Group of National Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association within the EU (ECTAA) spoke about the negative impact of the strict Schengen visa policy on tourism industry and gave examples from different countries presenting not only the case of Belarus but also that of other countries, such as India. He explained that member states focus mostly on security and illegal migration issues and there is lack of real impact assessment from the tourist industry perspective.
Michel de Blust advised the Belarusian association of tour operators to join the ECTAA. Membership in the organisation, he stressed, would help Belarusians to address such issues as visa policies and increase awareness of the EU institutions of similar cases. Representatives of the Belarusian travel association were invited to attend the ECTAA General Assembly meeting which is scheduled to take place in Budapest in May 2009.
Participants of the round table agreed to send a joint letter to the governments of all 25 states signatories to the Schengen agreement and EU institutions. The letter should explain the current situation with visas and request changes in the visa policy. Travel associations of various European countries will be requested to support the appeal.
Participants of the meeting agreed to organise the next expert gathering in Minsk in the coming months.