Rising price of admission

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 12:00am

I vaguely recall stories of an era when governments would issue visas to foreign travellers with a gentlemanly diplomatic grace - and free of charge. If true, those were halcyon days indeed. Contrast the recent acrimony over increased mainland visa fees for UK and US nationals. Some may claim there is a sort of rough justice here, in that those Britons and Americans will, albeit indirectly, merely be helping Chinese travellers to afford the visa fees which their countries levy in turn. Tit-for-tat is certainly not uncommon in this field. But the latest rises appear to have gone further than that.

How should we gauge whether a fee is fair? Most governments nowadays see visa issuance as an activity that must pay for itself. For many, security concerns or worries over fraudulent immigration have increased the costs of processing applications. But pleading the excuse of rising costs is as likely to invite snide comments about the efficiency and pay of civil servants as it is to attract sympathetic understanding.

Anyway, cost recovery is, if pursued too single-mindedly, a questionable strategy. It overlooks the potential wider benefits from admitting visitors. If the British and Chinese governments, between them, set fees which deter Britons from making weekend excursions into the mainland, and Chinese from including London on their European itineraries, they are both losers. They would be forgoing goodwill, as well as visitor expenditure, which would surely outweigh any modest deficits borne by immigration departments if fees were lower.

Some governments may, of course, have subtle reasons, in security or politics, for wishing to curtail visitor numbers, either in general or of particular nationalities. There are a few which may, rather than being willing to admit anyone as long as there is no clear reason not to, prefer to keep everyone out unless there is good reason to let them in. In such cases, the visa office can unashamedly serve as a profit centre, fleecing foreigners without being in conflict with any other policy goals.

In fiscal terms, a visa fee is actually quite a good wheeze. Like an airport departure tax, it taxes only those who should be able to afford it - businesspeople and other relatively affluent individuals. And, in domestic political terms, it has the superficial attraction of taxing only foreigners; however, that argument falls flat once the tit-for-tat process gets under way.

There are countless ways in which the visa game can be played to maximise fee income, if that is the objective - by discriminating short-term from long-term stayers, businesspeople from tourists, and so on. A sufficiently determined government could tailor the system to maximum advantage. But governments which set different fees for people from different countries may be presenting some interesting and possibly worrisome insights into their diplomatic prejudices, or even encourage presumptions of vindictiveness. And those which merely set fees reactively, on a retaliatory basis, reveal a certain sterility of thought about the wider political and economic context - although it must be admitted that the threat of retaliation may exert a very useful discipline on others.

Different governments will doubtless continue to set charges by reference to different combinations of fiscal, economic and political factors. Despite competitive forces from lower-fee jurisdictions possibly serving as some sort of restraint, the general trend seems to be upwards. This raises the relative attractiveness, certainly for short trips, of places which offer visa-free access for one's own nationality. Meanwhile, any government which first requires a visa, and then charges a lot for it, should perhaps reflect on how its image may be affected. It may be perceived as unwelcoming, and engender a certain resentment even before the visitor has set foot there. Some governments may be too thick-skinned to realise that, or perhaps too arrogant to care.

Tony Latter is a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong