Fines slapped on thousands of travellers transiting through Switzerland without the correct paperwork have been described as bad PR for Swiss tourism.
According to the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, in 2009-2010 over 6,700 people received fines of SFr200-650 ($255-830) for legally spending over three months in another Schengen zone country but making the mistake of travelling back home via Switzerland.
Under Swiss law, the limit for staying in the region without a visa is three months.
Several Schengen countries – Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Austria - have bilateral agreements with countries like the United States and Australia allowing visitors to spend longer than the region’s standard limit of 90 days within six months without a visa.
Swiss migration authorities defended the Swiss practice, but the penalty system has irked Switzerland Tourism, the organisation in charge of marketing the country to tourists.
It first heard about the fines through the Swiss embassy in Canberra after Australians complained about being hit with fines while travelling from Zurich – which has the best connections to Australia from mainland Europe.
Switzerland Tourism took the matter up with Zurich airport police and the Federal Migration Office in Bern in December and when it heard no more noise on the matter, assumed it had been resolved.
Urs Eberhard, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism, told swissinfo.ch he was “extremely surprised” to read a report in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper on Monday which quoted “shocking” numbers of people fined, and not only Australians.
Indeed the paper spoke to a German-American writer who regularly travels to Germany on book tours, and who was fined at Zurich for staying five days over the standard 90-day Schengen limit. She paid the fine in order to make her New York flight, but at the same time was warned that such an offence carried a risk of a minimum one year ban from the Schengen zone.
Americans have paid the most fines – there were 658 US visitors penalised in all; there were also large numbers of travellers affected from Brazil and the Balkans, according to the newspaper.
“We have to do marketing to motivate people to come to Switzerland and that’s why we are really irritated about the amount of cases,” said Eberhard.
He said it went against their marketing efforts of making a good first impression at the border or at airports. “If someone has a bad experience in Switzerland the chance that they return to the country is probably slimmer than if they would have a good experience.”
Cases where people were not aware they had broken a law was “definitely an embarrassment”, he said. However he was quick to say they were not urging Swiss authorities break national law either.
Instead, this was a “clear signal” that the Swiss should fall in line with neighbouring countries and sign similar bilateral agreements with countries like the US and Australia, so the same rules apply, he argued.
Mario Lütolf, head of the umbrella Swiss Tourism Federation, voiced a similar opinion, telling Tages-Anzeiger it would be smart to clear up this “incompatibility” with Schengen as quickly as possible. He said it brought “unnecessary embarrassment” to Switzerland.
Pick another airline
Lütolf was also “outraged” at a Federal Migration Office suggestion that people opt to travel with Air France, Lufthansa or Iberia instead of Swiss International Air Lines to be sure they avoid a fine.
Swiss International Air Lines responded that they were “a little astonished” by the advice. Spokesman Jean-Claude Donzel told swissinfo.ch the company had taken note of the situation and would be in contact with airport police and migration authorities. As a rule, Swiss advised passengers to check country entry requirements before travel, he added.
For its part the Federal Migration Office said there were no plans to change the strict 90-day visa exemption system, telling swissinfo.ch: “Representatives of the Swiss tourism industry have repeatedly confirmed that this system adequately addresses the needs of the tourism industry.”
Spokesman Michael Glauser said Switzerland was simply following the Schengen rule that visitors cannot stay longer in the zone than 90 days within six months.
The fines would only affect people staying over three months within the Schengen zone - not travellers transiting through Switzerland from another country, he added. In addition, only people who had stayed 30 days beyond the three-month limit faced a travel ban.
Switzerland and Schengen
Switzerland has been a full member of the Schengen area since March 2009.
It is one of three non-EU members; the other two are Norway and Iceland. As such, it does not have a vote over the new proposals, although it will take part in discussions.
It will decide for itself whether to apply any new rules. When the EU adopts new legislation, Switzerland has two years to apply it. If it rejects it, talks are held to find a compromise.
In the case of Schengen, if Switzerland does not agree, it could be expelled from the Schengen area.
However, any change to the rules have to be approved by all the EU members and the European parliament. The process could take several years.
Key visa facts
Citizens from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and Singapore do not require visas to enter and stay in the country for 90 days. Stays for longer periods are possible but you must apply for a visa. Citizens from other countries generally need a visa to enter Switzerland and the Schengen area.
Citizens from Europe’s Schengen area, the European Union and the European Free Trade Association (Efta) do not require visas to enter and stay in the country for 90 days. Stays for longer are possible without a visa but you must apply for a residence permit.
By Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch