Tajani: EU should open up to Russian, Chinese tourists

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EU countries should introduce as early as this summer a much more flexible system to deliver visas to citizens of Russia, China and Brazil who are "big spenders" as tourists, Antonio Tajani, commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Antonio Tajani is European Commission Vice President in charge of entrepreneurship and industry, which also includes responsibility for tourism. On 5 March, the Commission set a target for tourism to become an "economic driver in 2012".

He spoke to EURACTIV's Senior Reporter Georgi Gotev.

Commissioner, you recently voiced the idea that EU countries should have a more lax visa policy, in order to bring more tourists to Europe. As Industry and Entrepreneurship Commissioner, you are responsible of the tourism sector, and such an effort could be seen also in the context of dealing with the economic crisis on our continent. Can you elaborate?

Tourism is indeed a key sector. You probably refer to my interview with The Independent. Next to the interview, there was a picture of the Parthenon, upon which the percentage of tourism in the different countries' GDP was indicated: 15% in Portugal, almost 10% in Italy, a similar figure for Greece … So undoubtedly this is a very important sector, which surprisingly did well in the time of the crisis. Why is that so? Because Europe has a heritage of unbelievable treasures. We are still the first tourist destination in the world. And we should remain so.

I am the first commissioner responsible for tourism, according to the new EU treaty, and I intend to reinforce the sector. On the one hand, we should of course strengthen the tourism internal market. But there are today countries, the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China], in particular Russia, China, Brazil, where there are middle classes that can afford to travel. And who are big spenders.

You confirm that they tend to spend more than EU tourists do?

Of course. That's why we should study a strategy to get rid of the visa problem. Visas are an obstacle for tourism. Of course there are security concerns, we should not close keep our eyes shut on them. But we could start by making more flexible the system of issuing visas.

There was a good pilot project in Italy, I don't know if it is going to be followed up. The Italian Foreign Ministry decided to use the services of the Institute for Foreign Trade to open several mobile offices in southern China, which were habilitated to issue visas. Therefore visas were issued not only at the Embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai. Thanks to this strategy, and to these about 10 mobile offices, the number of tourists from China to Italy grew by 100% in the summer of 2011.

And we can do the same thing with Russia. Because we face competition from Turkey [Russians need no visas to visit Turkey]. I was in Slovakia, three or four weeks ago, I spoke to the minister for Tourism, and he told me that for his country, it was very important to have more tourists from Russia and Ukraine.

It appears that in all the countries of Eastern Europe, where until not so long ago Russians visited without visas, there is regret that an opportunity was lost. But is it possible to turn the clock back?

The fist thing is to have more flexible European organisation. To have a network [responsible for issuing visas] in Russia, China and Brazil wouldn't cost much, and it would be a good investment. Then it would be necessary to change the rules on tourism visas. Mr. Obama in the United States, a country very tough on security, changed the rules on tourism visas with regard China and Brazil citizens. Why not do the same? We could have pilot projects. Over summer, two months with new rules for tourists coming from Russia… This is an idea.

Or on the occasion of a sporting event?

Yes, and we should try to be creative. I remember Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin saying: I know well the problem of terrorism, but for a terrorist, a visa and a passport are not a problem. And I agree.

But did you speak to Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström? It's she who deals with visa issues…

There is a Commission Communication on tourism of June 2010. Already there, we speak about the need to change the visa system. I spoke to Commissioner Malmström and to all tourism ministers on the occasion of informal Tourism Council meetings. This is an issue where we should continue to work. In my capacity of Commissioner responsible for tourism, I invite the member countries to have a more flexible organisation for the delivery of visas.

I spoke to Italy's Tourism Minister, Mr Piero Gnudi. The investment made so far has been negligible, but we earned a lot. We could start before this summer, by introducing a more flexible organisation. As a second step, we can change the rules. It's not me who can change the rules, but as Commissioner responsible for tourism policy, I should raise the issue. Because otherwise we risk to suffer from our competitors, such as Turkey, such as countries in the East of Asia, or the United States. We risk to lose the competition.

Shouldn't the EU have a full-time Tourism Commissioner? I am asking because the EU will have a new member, Croatia, and a new Commission portfolio should be attributed. You have already many duties as Industry and Entrepreneurship commissioner…

This is not for me to say. I work a lot for the tourism sector. This is a question for the Commission president, certainly not for me.

But you confirm that the Tourism sector has enormous potential for the EU?

Absolutely! But it is becoming even more an industry sector. Today there is less and less difference between industry and services, it's all internal market, it's a real economy.

Read a related news item here.

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