Local meteorologists agree South Beach was spared the recent spate of hurricanes that lashed Florida. But they hadn’t ventured out, as we did in a Jeep, during the Saturday-night height of Frances. As we drove along the deserted streets, it was evident that Paris Hilton wannabes and fraternity revelers had both decided not to risk it with a category-four storm. Sheets of rain and screaming winds had closed everything from Mynt to Mango’s.
However, at the intimate bar of the steel-shuttered Hotel St. Augustine, only a couple of blocks from the beach, we found the eclectic group we sought. Owner Fernando Canale and Billy Belack, who runs the bar’s informal salon, were there. Across the room, a muscled Dutch gay couple who wanted a weekend of partying were now reduced to complaining about not leaving for New York a day earlier. Honeymooners from the Midwest were downing lemon shots and moaning about being stranded since their Caribbean cruise had been scuttled. A couple of elegantly dressed, 80-something grande dames from Palm Beach were huddled in a corner, their jewel-encrusted fingers clutching martinis and cigarettes. And five colorful locals, from a British hotel owner straight out of AbFab to an artist who had just finished putting up his own shutters before running inside, rounded out the group.
We plopped into the banquette next to the Dutch couple. As nosy reporters who like to ask a lot of questions, it didn’t take long to find out they were long-time South Beach visitors.
“We haven’t missed a White Party in years,” Erik, a graphic artist, told us. “But we won’t be here starting soon. You are going to lose a lot of us when America starts its biometric program.”
We’ve worked on terrorism stories and vaguely knew what he meant. Biometrics measures biological dimensions: fingerprints, iris scans, hand measurements, gait recognition, typing rhythms and many more personal identifiers that can be encoded and stored on computer chips. It is the technology at the heart of an ambitious $8 billion science-fiction-like program that the Bush administration wants to implement for foreign travelers. Visitors to America, Erik claimed, even weekend partiers, would be required to have passports with digital identifiers.
“He’s right,” chimed in Anton, his partner. “There is no way we are going to give up our privacy to come here. And then we will have to get a visa on top of it. Do you think we’re going to stay in line at the American embassy for five hours so we can come to South Beach? When those rules happen, we, and most of our friends, will go elsewhere.”
Where? ‘We’ll just stay in Europe,” said Erik. ‘We’d rather party in Ibiza than put up with the hassles of biometrics. We’ll miss South Beach. But that’s what your government has done.”
Long after Frances had passed and the St. Augustine’s hurricane party was history, we knew we had stumbled onto a good story. Were the Dutch boys right? Were new post-9/11 security regulations about to inadvertently hurt South Beach’s biggest business, tourism?
What had Erik and Anton’s knickers in such a twist was that after 9/11, relying on new powers in the Patriot Act, the State Department had issued stringent new regulations. The fact is, travelers from 27 countries-including close friends like France, England, Japan, Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, among others-have to present either a “machine-readable” passport or have a visa to get into the country. (If there are two lines of computer code at the bottom of a passport, it is machine-readable-easier said than done, since approximately 50 percent of all French passports, for instance, don’t meet this requirement yet).
Travelers with visas who arrive at an airport or seaport will have to put their index fingers on a glass plate that will scan their biometric identity. A facial photograph will be taken. On leaving the country, visitors will enter an automated self-service kiosk, where they will again scan their travel documents and check their fingerprints on a glass plate. By next year, all passports from those 27 countries will have to include the more intrusive biometric identifiers, probably retinal or iris scans on a microchip.
Such personal information is intended to help track down criminals, suspected terrorists and travelers who overstay visas. It lets customs officers insure the person standing in front of them is the same person described on the visa. Similar rules already cover about 19 million visitors annually from Central and South America, Africa and Asia. But the new regulations expand the strict guidelines to another 13 million travelers, many of whom find the tougher security highly offensive.
And some travel professionals are not quite as convinced as the Bush administration that everything will be smooth sailing. ‘There is widespread concern that confusion and fear about the new rules could keep people away from the U.S.,” says David Ness, a London-based travel agent who specializes in Europeans visiting the States, particularly Florida. There are good reasons to worry. Foreign travelers- especially those from the 27 countries listed by the U.S.-spend more money and take longer trips in the United States on average than Americans do. And in South Beach, a party haven for Europeans and South Americans, some local hospitality businesses worry the regulations could have an impact.
The major concern is the invasion of privacy that so bothered Erik and Anton, the Dutch couple visiting the Beach. “There is a complete lack of any kind of accountability with this,” says Trevor Hennings, deputy director of Statewatch, a British organization that researches privacy issues. ‘There’s no way to know what will be on the chip? And some travelers may react poorly to being fingerprinted. In places such as Brazil, people associate fingerprinting only with criminals.
Moreover, since early last year, U.S. Customs has been recording the name of every person flying into, through and out of the U.S. When the European Commission protested at the time that this violated almost every conceivable European law on data privacy, America agreed to delete information about passengers’ health, race or religion, use the records only for tracking terrorists, and only store it for three and a half years. Still, few foreigners like the idea of their personal information sitting inside US. government files.
For many free-spirited visitors to South Beach, there are additional concerns caused by widely circulated stories making the European gossip circuit. Most are about travelers who had either inadvertently overstayed their visas by a few days due to some emergency or arrived without the right visas and had been jailed. A well-known Australian journalist, en route to do an interview, was jailed for several days and not allowed contact with her family or access to a lawyer after she arrived in the United States without the proper visa. Two prominent Brazilian cardiologists were also jailed when they arrived for a business conference without the right visas.
Beyond the fears of privacy loss, there are more mundane concerns. The fingerprinting and photography could cause delays at American entry ports, clogging immigration lines and delaying flights. The US. says its new rules will add only 15 seconds to the processing time for each foreign traveler, but few in the industry believe such an optimistic estimate.
New technologies such as biometrics almost always run into glitches, and in this case casual visitors to America could be the unintended victims. “It isn’t a magic bullet. It isn’t the 100-percent solution,” says Michael Thieme, a senior consultant for International Biometric Group, a New York-based consulting firm. it doesn’t take plastic surgery for the system to go down [and yield an inaccurate result]. It just takes rudimentary changes-from smiling to frowning, or a different [camera] angle. People will be flagged as terrorists who are not. I’d be stunned if that’s not the case. A lot of things have to be thought through. It’s more complicated than anybody has an idea of.”
And biometrics aside, even things that used to be fairly easy-obtaining a visa, for instance-will not be as simple as pre-9/11. Most visas will necessitate prearranged, face-to-face interviews with U.S. consular officials, usually requiring a special trip for the traveler to the U.S. embassy in the capital city of their own country. In poorer nations, like Argentina, the visa-application fee of more than $100 is expensive, and if the U.S. denies the visa, the money isn’t refundable.
“The test will be, what is the public reaction?” says David O’Connor, U.S. director of the International Air Transport Association, which represents 120 airlines serving the United States. “It may be fairly negative.” “People will think twice about flying to the U.S. if word gets back about how hard it is to enter Fortress America,” adds Simon Evans, CEO of a British-government-funded passenger watchdog group, the Air Transport Users Council.
Will fears of losing privacy, long delays in obtaining visas, and equally long delays at U.S. entry ports take the fun out of spontaneous weekend trips to South Beach? Might foreign bookers for fashion shoots and commercials find Capri or Spain as photogenic as SoBe?
“That has been a worry of mine,” says Fabio Moretti, the Italian-born owner of Contesta Rock Hair on Espanola Way. Fabio; whose clients include some of the top visiting models, also runs a workshop that arranges photo shoots and events in South Beach for European fashion magazines and designers. ‘This is absolutely something that has a lot of people in Europe worried. They are just standing back right now and waiting to see how it all plays out”
But the news for South Beach may not be as glum as it first appears. Myles Chefetz, owner of the hot steak house Prime One Twelve, says it “has not been on our clients’ radar yet” The restaurant is a magnet for many European visitors. ‘The leisure traveler still hasn’t focused on it.”
Rupen Etian, whose local company Ice Productions arranges print and fashion shoots, doesn’t like the new strict rules, but also believes they will not be as damaging to South Beach as some fear. “My European clients don’t make their final decision on where to shoot on any one factor,” he says. “It has more to do with the entire experience. No one is going to like feeling like they are being treated as a criminal at customs, but in the end factors like costs and availability of resources are going to be most important. Miami’s only competition during the winter sea- 204 Ocean Drive son is Cape Town. And we have an advantage, because the talent pool in New York is so close. Miami is still going to be a great draw, even if the travel regulations get people complaining a lot.”
And while the U.S. may have kicked off the biometric and security craze, other governments, mostly European, are embracing similar rules. A German firm is leading the way on iris-recognition technology, while a Finnish company has won contracts to do most of the biometric passports for the European Community. Australia and Japan are likely to have biometrics operating before the U.S., and Germany’s travel rules might even be more restrictive. The days seem numbered for European travelers such as Erik and Anton to merely walk across the border of their neighboring countries without even flashing a passport. For them and others looking for a great time in the sun, skipping South Beach in favor of Ibiza won’t be a good option: It’s going to be just as difficult to travel there as to America.
And then there are some people we spoke to who not only are unfazed by the stricter rules, but actually find them comforting in an odd way. “It’s going to make me feel safer,” says Barbara Goldman, a circuit partier living in London. “I don’t give a toss if they want a picture of my eye.”
Base on Lincoln Road, ranked last year as one of the world’s ten best clothing shops by GQ magazine, is a must-stop for many international travelers because of its unique style. British-born owner Steven Giles has spoken with some of his customers about the upcoming security changes and believes it will not be a long-term problem. “No one really likes it, but we’ll adapt, as people do-who’d have thought even a year or so ago that flying would involve the hazards and wait lines that it does? As of next week, it’s off with all shoes and jackets, and it’s only a matter of time before we are down to our undies. In view of that, an eye scan might be preferable.”