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Good News For Czech Travelers

The following opinion piece by Ambassador Richard Graber was first published September 5 in MF DNES

By Ambassador Richard W. Graber

As we approach the end of summer and return from vacation, the frustrations of modern travel cannot be far from anyone’s mind. Yet, while many of us were away, a significant and highly positive development occurred -- a development that will soon make life easier for Czechs traveling to the United States.

The U.S. Congress passed legislation fulfilling President Bush’s pledge to open our borders to more tourist and business travel without the requirement of a visa.  The President signed this legislation into law on August 3. This is what we have all been waiting for -- the long-anticipated reform of the Visa Waiver Program that has so often been in the news. I am particularly pleased that the Czech Republic is part of this program.  Your country will serve as a model for many others. 

Czechs are well positioned to take advantage of the new guidelines soon.  It’s not hard to see why. With a booming economy and ever-increasing ties between our countries the Visa Waiver Program makes good business sense. At the policy level, contributions to the War on Terror and full partnership as a NATO ally gave the Czech Republic strong leverage. Clearly, partnerships forged since 1989 with the U.S. and Europe continue to serve as pillars of Czech foreign policy and ensure that Czech voices are heard in the transatlantic dialogue.

Indeed, Czech voices were heard loud and clear in the corridors of Washington. The Czech government won the respect of many for the compelling way in which it stated its case. It is now poised to lead the way to visa-free status among its neighbors -- a widening of the new regime to which the U.S. Administration remains committed. The fact that the legislative process worked so quickly and that Czechs achieved this long-hoped-for goal is worth a congratulatory toast.
 
The practical benefits for Czech tourist and business travelers will mean elimination of visa forms and some fees, no appointment at the U.S. Embassy, and no wait for visa issuance. The benefits will come with important obligations.  All visa waiver countries will need to increase and maintain travel security enhancements as spelled out by the legislation itself. These include biometric passports, electronic information exchanges about travelers, and increased airport vigilance, many of which are already part of everyday reality and a necessary component of U.S. global counterterrorism policy to make travel safer.  Of course, these kinds of security improvements benefit all travelers.

Implementation of the new policy will likely depend on improvement to exit controls at U.S. airports, for which our department of Homeland Security will be responsible.  The new law is necessarily open-ended on how and when such verification procedures will be achieved, but the expectation is that the new system will be operational by 2009.

An important aspect of the new law is the lifting of the visa refusal rate from 3 to 10 percent to qualify for visa-free status.  For countries like the Czech Republic, which are already below the ten percent rate, qualifying will be that much easier.  For those above, the law does not exclude the possibility of qualifying through other steps.

We are still working out the mechanics of the program – a process that will involve talks between many U.S. and Czech government entities.  Not all aspects of the new law are yet defined which implies there will be room for flexibility and further improvements.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize this historic milestone, celebrate this important bilateral success, and note that something which was once seen as a long range goal has been resoundingly answered by the U.S. Congress and the President.