Feb 19th 2013, 12:23 by C.S.
VISAS are a frustrating necessity for the international traveller. But some countries' labyrinthine forms and hefty fees seem designed to dissuade all but the most determined tourists.
Take Britain, which requires Chinese tourists to fill in a ten-page form with biometric registration requirements--in English. Unsurprisingly, they have stayed away in their droves. Only 18% of Chinese visitors to Europe make it to Britain, but two-thirds visit France, a member of the Schengen travel zone where visas are both easier to get and are 40% cheaper. Chinese tourists are big spenders who shell out an average of PS1,618 ($2,500) each, twice as much as the typical American. VisitBritain, the country's tourism trade body, complains that the government's visa policies are costing the country PS2.8bn.
Elsewhere, ordinary travellers bear the brunt of tit-for-tat diplomatic measures. American visitors to Brazil pay a $160 visa fee, levied in retaliation for America's exclusion of Brazil from its visa-waiver programme. Neighbouring Chile and Argentina cheerily call their fees "reciprocity charges".
Other countries appear to want to deter all tourists. Sudan's government says it has intentionally made its visa application process expensive and opaque. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, famous for measuring "gross national happiness", levies a $250 daily tariff on visitors in an apparent effort to discourage hordes from spoiling its pristine scenery.
Indeed, poorer countries charge some of the highest fees. Americans who fancy a trip to Burkina Faso, say, must cough up almost $200. And whether these countries benefit from charging visa fees at all is debatable. It is probably safe to assume that the 2,500 British visitors who paid PS50 to enter Sierra Leone in 2011 generated far less revenue for the country's economy, and created fewer hospitality jobs, than the 111,000 visitors who paid nothing to enter Gambia.
Of course, a tourist's best bet is a passport that enables as much visa-free travel as possible. Anyone lucky enough to have a Danish, British or American passport can visit at least 166 countries without a visa, according to Henley & Partners, a consultancy. By contrast, Chinese passport holders, who are expected to account for half of all global tourism growth over the next 20 years, currently enjoy visa-free travel to only 41 countries. But spare a thought for the plucky Afghan traveller, who has visa-free access to just 26 countries--none of which have direct airline connections to Kabul.
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