Push on to postpone US passport plan

Another move is under way to postpone a plan that would force US citizens to possess a valid passport when re-entering their country from a Caribbean destination.

Caribbean tourism officials want to push back to June 2009 the first phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which is supposed to take effect 1 January, 2007.

Phase 1 would require United States citizens to possess a valid passport when re-entering the country from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico, Latin and South America and Canada by air or sea.

Opponents to the measure say a postponement would bolster awareness of the requirement and give travellers more time to get passports. The requirement extends to all land border crossings on 1 January, 2008.

Congress passed the travel initiative as part of a broader anti-terrorism law in 2004.

US residents have had since that time to comply with the first phase, but few have done so.

A recent survey of cruise passengers travelling to the Caribbean showed only 45 per cent of them were carrying passports, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines.

‘The reason for a further postponement must be that the pick up of new passports by US citizens has been nowhere near the numbers that we would like to see,’ said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

‘We recognize that we have an added problem, which is that so many people have been so accustomed for so long to waking in the morning and deciding to go to the Caribbean because they didn’t need a passport, that there has to be an extensive campaign to let a lot more people know about this new requirement,’ he said.

Failing the postponement, a measure to level the playing field is what officials are after, he said.

Bills pending in the US Senate and House of Representatives would delay implementation of the 1 January, 2007, date. However, the measures are tied to the larger issue of immigration legislation that could stall in Congress.

Caribbean members of the Caribbean Community Council for Foreign and Community Relations have met twice with US government officials to state their case for postponing the Jan. 1, 2007 date, Mr. Vanderpool-Wallace said.

Caribbean government and tourism officials are alarmed that the number of applications for new US passports ‘has been nowhere near the numbers we wanted, despite extensive educational campaigns already under way,” he said.

“We’ve done surveys of US travellers to the Caribbean who currently hold valid passports and although the numbers seem to vary with each survey, some results show that up to 70 per cent do have passports,” he said. “However, I will not be comfortable until at least 90 per cent of the US market has passports.”

While the travel industry isn’t opposed to the new requirements, critics say not enough has been done to inform the public. And they say travellers may be getting confused by proposals in Congress to push back the 1 January, 2007, deadline to 2008.

But despite the travel industry’s worries, more Americans are getting passports. Last year, the US Department of State issued 10.1 million of them, an increase of 30 per cent over 2004. This year, the number of applications is expected to reach 13 million, according to Angela Aggeler, a State Department spokeswoman.

“The people who are most affected don’t think that they’re crossing an international border,” she said. “This is not like me getting on a plane to fly to London. For these people, a school may be on one side and home may be on another. It’s their neighbourhood.”

Federal security officials and Congress are discussing the idea of a less expensive, credit card-sized passport card as an alternative to a passport for Americans who make frequent land border crossings, particularly along the northern borders.

Those plans are fuelling some concern over whether the federal rule-making process will be completed quickly enough to make either of the passport deadlines stick.

“Things are confusing,” said Rick Webster of the Travel Industry Association. “One possible outcome is people won’t travel. There could be 10s of thousands of people who decide not to travel be cause they’re concerned about what documentation they’ll need.”

Mr. Webster predicted federal officials will be hard pressed to complete the rule-making process, and enforcement will be difficult. Others believe there could be an avalanche of applications later this year, possibly causing delays that would prevent some people from travelling.

That’s why Mr. Webster isn’t changing his advice to Americans.

“If people are planning any type of travel after January of 2007, get a passport. Run, don’t walk,” he said. “That’s all we can tell people at this point.”

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