Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, in charge of enterprise and industry, has pleaded for easing visa requirements on foreign tourists, starting with nationals from Russia, China and Brazil. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, he said the proposal could deliver much-needed growth for Europe in times of crisis.
Basing himself on his competence for the tourism sector, Tajani stressed that industry had remarkably withstood the economic crisis, and that for several EU countries, it represented a significant percentage of GDP.
Indeed, the Commission recently published a paper showing that the European tourist-accommodation sector reached in 2011 record numbers in the EU 27, surpassing pre-crisis results.
According to the report, the highest numbers of nights spent in hotels by non-residents were recorded in Spain (+14.7%) and Italy (+ 3.9%), whereas the largest increase of nights spent by residents in hotels were recorded in Lithuania (+20.6%), Bulgaria (+15.0%) and Romania (+13.4%).
Tajani said the tourism sector performed "surprisingly well" in times of crisis, "because Europe has a heritage of unbelievable treasures".
"We are still the first tourist destination in the world. And we should remain so," he said.
Tajani said that in the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China –, there was a middle class "that can afford to travel". He singled out tourists from Russia, China and Brazil as "big spenders" compared to average EU tourists.
The commissioner cited his own country Italy, which led a pilot project for visa facilitation in China, which he described as very successful.
"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 mobile offices in China, Tajani said, "the number of tourists from China to Italy grew by 100% in the summer of 2011."
The Commissioner said that to put in place similar visa-issuing networks in other countries "wouldn't cost much, and it would be a good investment".
Apart from that, he said that a next step could be to "change the rules of issuing visas", citing as an example the US, where the Obama administration in January moved to ease visa requirements on increasingly affluent Chinese and Brazilian visitors in an effort to boost tourism and create jobs.
The American tourism industry and business groups have long advocated an easing of visa restrictions that were tightened in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001.
"Why not do the same? We could have pilot projects," Tajani said.
He cited Slovakia's tourism minister, who recently told him that for his country, it was very important to have more tourists from Russia and Ukraine.
Tajani also appeared to welcome the idea of easing visa conditions for sporting events. Ukraine is co-hosting the Euro 2012 football championship with Poland in June, while Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.