Detained in Paradise
Five foreign tourists remain under police watch during their holiday on Roatan

April 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]

Five foreign tourists remain under police watch during their holiday on Roatan.

Five foreign tourists remain under police watch during their holiday on Roatan.

On February 25 Roatan became a spark for the biggest scandal so far to trouble the barely week-old Zelaya presidency. An Albanian, two Bosnians and two Lebanese nationals who came in on a “Las Mobili” furniture award vacation at Henry Morgan, were told by Roatan immigration officials that they lacked proper visa documentations.

From the 250 passengers who landed on Roatan, only five came from countries that need conditional visas – all had “visa problems.” The five had visas issued by three different consulates and none of the consulates had followed the visa with an “authorization cable” to Honduras’ Ministry of Interior.

Roatan immigration tried placing the five tourists on the flight back to Italy, but the flight had only three open seats. The tourists had their passports temporarily confiscated and were allowed to stay at Henry Morgan Resort and take part in island excursions – all under police escort.

Mario Pacheco, Bay Islands Immigration Chief, explained that during his 20 months of serving as an immigration official in San Pedro Sula International Airport there were around five cases of foreign tourists who were sent back to their home countries for lack of an adequate visa.

“The authorities should be more flexible and analyze each case by case. They could contact the councils to receive the documents the following day,” said Arianna Polenghi, director of MCTours, a tour operator that also works with Italian tourists.

Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon are three of 43 countries that, along with a “conditional visa,” require a telex to the ministry of interior: a procedural matter, and not related to potential terrorist threat. Ricardo Martinez, Minister of Tourism, said that within three months the “conditional visas” will be eliminated.

Meanwhile, the consuls that issued the visas in Rome and Milan are being scrutinized by the Honduran foreign ministry. Charles Abou Adal, ex-honorary consul of Honduras in Lebanon is reported to not have been working in that position since 1999.

Blue Panorama, the charter airline that brought the five to Roatan, is responsible for verifying all travel documents at the time of departure. Their reservation system told the airline agent booking the five passengers that they needed not only a visa but an “authorization cable” and that “non compliance with entry regulations may result in refusal of passenger and a fine of $1,600 – for carrier.” The citizens of these countries are also required to report to “Departemento de Seguridad Publica” within 48 hours of arrival.

Also responsible for verifying the travel documents of the five tourists was ALPI tour, the tour operator handling the group. “ALPI Tour should have understood better the visa requirements,” said Pacheco. It is perhaps why Alessia Santora, ALPI Tour operator, tried to mislead Bay Islands VOICE about the departure time of the five tourists.

The incident was an unfortunate example of the conflicts within the Honduran government structure and revealed the basic lack of communication and respect between Immigration, Honduran Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Honduran diplomatic representatives abroad.

It became apparent that Roatan and Honduran authorities are not ready for the rising number and diversity of tourists coming to the island. “If it happened again in the future, the incident could damage the image of the entire country,” said Piero Dibattista, majority owner and manager of Henry Morgan resort. “There was an exceeding of responsibility of all parties.” And, at least for now, little has changed in how a tourist coming to Honduras with a conditional visa would be dealt with. They would be put on a plane and returned to their country of departure. [/private]

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