French decision to impose visas reverses open-borders tradition

France's decision to impose visa restrictions on travelers from countries outside of Europe, including Americans, marks a dramatic shift away from its proud history of open borders. The measure is part of Premier Jacques Chirac's larger antiterrorism strategy to counter two weeks of bombings in Paris.

Visa restrictions for Americans have disappeared around the world as rapidly as rain forests. In 1946, for instance, a US tourist had to have a visa or a tourist card to go almost anywhere except Canada and the Caribbean islands.

In 1986, Americans packing just a passport can also roam freely throughout Western Europe and 28 other countries -- from Bangladesh to Bolivia, Tunisia to Thailand.

That list, of course, now excludes France. The result: Hordes of hopeful travelers crowd French consulates in Boston, New York, and other cities, waiting for visas that need to be processed for trips after Oct. 1.

French Tourism Minister Jean-Jacques Descamps is on a tour of major US cities trying to reassure Americans that France is acting to combat terrorism. Security measures include the visa requirement.

Mr. Descamps told a Washington, D.C., press conference Monday that he would work with the French Embassy and consulates across the US to ensure that visas are issued as smoothly as possible. He said the visa requirement, imposed initially for six months, would be renewed unless all terrorist actions ceased.

``There hasn't been a visa requirement for Americans in any West European country for over 20 years,'' says Donald N. Martin, a longtime consultant for the European Travel Commission.

For France and several other countries, he says, it actually goes back to 1947. That's when the US drew up the Marshall Plan to boost European economies in the wake of World War II.

``One of the first objectives of the European Travel Commission was to try to cut the red tape to a minimum,'' Mr. Martin says. That meant ``getting rid of visa requirements and paper work, especially for Americans, who are the hard-currency spenders.''

But the red tape has returned, wrapping up tourists and, French officials hope, repelling terrorists.

``The only thing that's come up to us in the past 27 years is France,'' sighs Nader Dajani, manager of Nader Visa Services Inc. in Washington, D.C., for nearly three decades. He details a steady trend toward the opening of foreign borders to Americans abroad.

Even countries that require visas have loosened their regulations on American visitors in the past decade. Most East-bloc nations have made it easier for Americans to peek behind the Iron Curtain by dropping voucher requirements, which force visitors to have all trip arrangements prepaid.

China has also eased its border requirements in the past few years. It still doesn't allow individual visitation, but tour groups and businessmen wishing to visit Peking or the Great Wall have little difficulty.

There are a few exceptions: In some countries with dangerous conditions -- such as Lebanon and Iraq -- visitation policy has been severely restricted. State department officials also hint that El Salvador may soon be hardening its policy.

France, however, is the first major American tourist destination to upend the trend.

``When a major tourism country like France does something like this,'' says travel writer Robert S. Kane, ``it makes you wonder: Are they playing into the hands of the terrorists?''

Will France's measure hurt tourists more than terrorists? ``I think we would be surprised to see a big dip,'' says one travel expert, noting that the major tourist season has just ended. Tourist traffic ``is already off,'' he adds, ``largely due to fears of terrorism.''

Indeed, France has been one of the countries, along with Greece and Italy, hardest hit by terrorism. Estimates indicate that slightly over 2 million Americans will have visited France in 1986 by the end of the year. It was nearly 3 million last year.

In the past, Western European countries usually toughened requirements on third-world natives, not to chase away terrorists but to choke off the flow of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

For several years, however, there has been a small but growing trend toward sanctions on countries that have reputed links to terrorism.

France has been reluctant to join in imposing restrictions. But the recent wave of bombings has forced Premier Chirac to rethink that policy.

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