Czechs to travel to US without visas from November 17
Czechs will be able to travel to the United States without visas from November 17, a symbolic day that marks the collapse of communism in the former Czechoslovakia, a senior US official said Monday.
Announcing the date at a press conference in Prague, US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff called the step a sign of the Czech Republic's progress after the end of the Cold War, reproted dpa.
"We managed to make another stride towards a free movement of people," Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said.
November 17 marks the 19th anniversary of a student march that led to the peaceful fall of communism in then Czechoslovakia, known as the Velvet Revolution.
The announcement itself had been well-timed. He spoke a day before Czechs celebrated 90 years since founding their first independent state, the former Czechoslovakia.
Washington is currently also adding six more countries to the so- called visa waiver programme - Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea.
Czechs have been long frustrated by the US visa requirements, seen as costly and cumbersome. Their annoyance reached new highs when the visa requirement stayed in place even after their country entered the European Union in 2004.
The US visa policy created an inequality within the enlarged European Union as most old EU members and ex-communist Slovenia did not need visas to travel to the United States.
Tired of waiting for Brussels' help with scraping the unpopular US policy, Prague sealed a bilateral agreement with Washington that paved the way for Chertoff's announcement.
While a number of new EU members also rushed to make separate deals with the US, the step soured officials in Brussels, who called for a common visa policy.
The new members agreed to stricter rules for visa-free travel to the US than those already in place for the EU's old members.
"This step ensures free travel as well as mutually advantageous exchange of information," Topolanek said. "It enables us to join the fight against terrorism."
The new rules, aimed at reducing a threat of terrorism, require visitors to have a passport with biometric data and to register online before their trip.
The registration is presently free of charge, which could change in the future.
Although some Czechs have grumbled that the new policy came too late, travel agencies expected a boom in US tourism next year.
EU members Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania are on track to joining the visa waiver programme at a later date, US President George W Bush said on October 17.