Patagonia Chile Torres del Paine

(c) Gabriel O’Rorke

March has kicked off with a bang for the Southern Cone country of Chile as the U.S. Government and the Chilean government have gone to work and gotten something done.

Chile has dropped its hefty visa fee that Americans had to cough up before even stepping foot outside the Santiago airport, while the United States for its part has put that country’s citizens on the visa waiver program for heading to El Norte.

The US Department of Homeland Security made the announcement on February 28, 2014, as Chile signed a bilateral agreement with the US government. The agreement allows Chilean citizens to enter the Visa Waiver program starting May 1, 2014. Chileans must apply online for the ESTA program in advance of travel, hold an electronic passport, and pay a $14 fee.

In other words, Chileans don’t have to be treated like potential illegal immigrants any more and American travelers don’t have to be treated like victims of revenge. As with most other countries in Latin America, you can just walk through customs and have up to 90 days to leave your money in San Pedro de Atacama, the wine country, or Patagonia.

chilean wineThis is wonderful news for both sides. Chile is a relatively wealthy country with a functioning government and a stable currency. Their people are coming to the U.S. to do business or be tourists, not to stay on and work on a farm cutting lettuce. On the other side, it’s no secret that many travelers avoid there, Argentina, and Brazil because of the huge cost of entry—especially for a family. Many end up seeing a big visa fee on top of already higher prices (compared to Ecuador or Peru, for instance) and it seems easier to just go elsewhere.

This should provide a quick boost to Chile’s tourism numbers once the word gets out. The country should be getting a lot more visitors than it does, based on all it has to offer and its reputation for safety. Compared to basket case Argentina, it looks like Switzerland.

Which leads us to the next question: once their tourism companies and hotels start seeing a big increase, what will Argentina and Brazil do to compete? Brazil has been lobbying hard to get the same visa waiver clearance. Based on all the moneyed Brazilians I see in Miami, they don’t seem to pose much immigration risk either. Argentina though? Tougher call.

See our luxury tours stories from Atacama to Patagonia and our reviews of the best hotels in Chile.