Nearly thirty years ago, when I first visited Argentina during the "Proceso" military dictatorship, an apparently drunken policeman in the Patagonian town of Puerto San Julián insisted in telling me how much he loved Americans. In those days, any such attention from an official figure made you uncomfortable and, as it turned out, the policeman in question was heavily medicated - having literally shot himself in the foot the day before.
Fortunately, Argentina is a stable democracy now, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t shoot itself in the foot sometimes. Earlier this week, interior minister Florencio Randazzo announced that the country would institute a “reciprocity fee” - similar to the one collected by neighboring Chile - on foreign tourists whose governments impose visa fees on Argentine citizens. This would mean, for instance, that US citizens entering Argentina would have to pay US$131 per person for the right to enter Argentina, while Canadians would pay even more. Australians and Mexicans will pay correspondingly less.
This is not unfair, of course. Not only do Argentines seeking tourist visas for the US need to pay the said fee, but they also have to provide bank statements and other supporting documentation to prove they have stable employment and resources for their trip, and that they will not overstay their welcome. An applicant from, say, the southern city of Ushuaia will have to fly four hours to Buenos Aires and then back for a perfunctory personal interview at the US consulate. If the visa is not granted, there is no refund. It’s no surprise that Argentines (and other foreigners) resent the expensive, laborious and almost humiliating process, and many of them consider the new measure long overdue.
On the other hand, Argentine tourism operators are up in arms, and rightly so. Their sector has boomed since the 2002 economic collapse made Argentina an affordable destination, but rising international airfares, high domestic inflation, and the deteriorating international economic environment have put their livelihoods - and that of all Argentines directly and indirectly involved in tourism - in peril. Today's Buenos Aires Herald editorializes that the government "now risks discouraging tourism during a global crisis when few enough people feel inclined to travel." The measure, adds the Herald, "is jeopardizing a tourist revenue of potentially billions for the sake of 40 million dollars," the estimated amount of revenue that it would raise.
A US family of four would thus pay more than US$500 additional in “reciprocity fees” for a two-week Argentine holiday, and may well decide to go elsewhere in the current economic crisis. According to Ricardo Roza, president of the Asociación Argentina de Agencias de Viajes y Turismo (Argentine Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies), “In addition to being inconvenient, [the measure] seems dubious and difficult to apply. The world economic crisis is already affecting the arrival of tourists. There’s no reason to impose any more obstacles. In reality, this will limit the country’s foreign exchange earnings.” Another private tourism official added that “This charge is punitive, a very inhospitable measure.”
Originally, it was announced that the measure would take effect on January 1, 2009, but there are rumors it may be postponed until March - which would at least give operators one less worry for the upcoming summer high season. The details are yet unclear as well - who will collect the fees and how? Chile, for instance, collects its reciprocity fee only at Santiago’s international airport, as it’s utterly impractical at some remote border posts, so that overland travelers are de facto exempt. Nor is the Argentine measure’s term of validity clear - in Chile, again, it’s valid for the lifetime of the passport, up to ten years.
Meanwhile, an apparently impulsive government decision threatens to undermine one of the Argentine economy’s most dynamic sectors. It's fair enough to open fire on a threatening enemy, but it's foolish to shoot your ally, and even more foolish to shoot yourself in the foot.