Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Waiving Visas & Dollar Developments

Yesterday, finally, I finished the manuscript for the new fourth edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, and that liberates me to consider other matters. It doesn’t liberate me completely, as I still have to prepare map updates and choose photos in the near future, but at least I can take a breather to write about something else. I’ve chosen two items of recent significance, most notably Chile’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program and recent development in Argentina’s “blue dollar” market.

Waiving Those Visas…
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that, thanks to Chile’s acceptance into the US Visa Waiver Program, Chilean citizens will no longer need a visa to enter the United States for business or tourist travel for periods shorter than 90 days. Of 38 participants worldwide, Chile is the only Latin American country to qualify, though Argentina and Brazil previously did so.
I’ve written about this topic with some frequency because of Chile’s so-called “reciprocity fee” collected from arrivals at Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez – US$160 in the case of US citizens. Canadians pay US$132, Australians US$95, Mexicans US$23, and Albanians (!) US$30.

Chile’s acceptance into the program means that US citizens will no longer have to pay that fee and, as I understand it, that policy has taken effect already – the stars and stripes no longer belongs on the photograph I took in November - even though the US measure does not come into effect until May 1. Chilean visitors will, however, have to register through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, at a cost of US$14, and are eligible to do so immediately. The ESTA waiver is valid for two years, or until the expiration of the passport.

It is not clear, though, whether US citizens will have to pay that fee, at least in the short run – at present, the Santiago airport website shows only the aforementioned countries. Still, it would seem logical in the longer term, though presumably Chile would continue to allow US visitors to pay the fee on arrival, as has been the case until now. I always thought the reciprocity fee was a foolish measure that deterred some visitors and diverted money from the private sector – service providers who offer lodging, meals and transportation – to the government.

That’s all in the past now, and I hope to see many more US visitors in Chile, and many more Chileans in the US. I’d also like to see Argentina, and Brazil return to the program, and many other countries to join it.

Patagonian Dollar Developments
It’s been an oddly quiet time in the Argentine “parallel market,” largely because the government declared a two-day Carnaval holiday that ended last night. Before the holiday, the “blue dollar” in Buenos Aires had tumbled to 11.20 from almost 12 as the official dollar nearly held its own against US currency.
That said, I had a contradictory experience in northern Patagonia. Even as the dollar slipped in the capital, the official exchange house Cambio Andina here in Bariloche was openly paying 11, the best rate I had gotten except in Puerto Madryn in January, when the official peso nosedived. In principle, at least, exchange houses should be paying the official rate of 7.89.

Almost every operator and hotel is offering 10 but, on the day after I changed, I lunched at a new and excellent Italian restaurant, Nebbiolo (pictured above) that offered 12 to the dollar, so I decided to pay with a US$50 banknote that I had in my wallet. My experience, of course, is anecdotal but, in a region where the parallel market is less active than in Buenos Aires, it seems to suggest that the scenario remains complex.

Afternoon Update: Around midday today, when I went to Andina Cambio, the blue dollar rate had fallen to 10.30 pesos. Oddly, the clerk surprised me by asking for my passport as I changed US$100 - theoretically, this is obligatory, but nobody has ever asked me before. Meanwhile, at Nebbiolo, they are holding with the 12-peso rate, but only to pay the restaurant bill.

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