Herminio Rodriguez  /  AP file
Ellie Botshon, of New York, climbs a rock at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque. Puerto Rico has been aggressively branding itself a no-passport destination for Americans.
updated 1/17/2007 3:20:19 PM ET 2007-01-17T20:20:19

Bride-to-be Megan Ziemba was weighing two Caribbean oases for her winter wedding when the U.S. government stepped in and tipped the balance.

In Puerto Rico, the 27-year-old could get married in a colonial mansion of her dreams - and her American guests wouldn't have to worry about new U.S. passport rules that are promising headaches for the more than 70 percent of U.S. citizens without one.

Starting Jan. 23, American air travelers accustomed to visiting the islands, Mexico or Canada with only a driver's license will need a passport when they return home. The rule kicks in for cruise passengers and drivers in 2008.

"We have a lot of family coming down, and I know they don't have passports," said Ziemba, a financial analyst from New York.

So Ziemba, who had been tempted by a mountainside resort in St. Lucia, chose the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan for her wedding instead. Many of her guests plan to spend a week and take in the island's old Spanish forts, palm-lined beaches, and jungle rain forests.

Puerto Rico has been aggressively branding itself a no-passport destination with a $36 million advertising campaign on the U.S. mainland, and the U.S. Virgin Islands has labeled itself "America's Caribbean."

But while those U.S.-administered islands are expecting a windfall from weddings and impulse travelers, their tourism-dependent neighbors are sweating.

The new passport rules, designed to increase U.S. border security, have conjured fears of economic ruin in the island nations. Their governments have lobbied Washington for a deadline extension, and their tourism boards have launched campaigns encouraging Americans to apply for passports and keep them up to date.

Analysts say Puerto Rico will likely experience a jump in bookings, at least initially, with losses expected elsewhere.

A 2005 study commissioned by the Caribbean Hotel Association found the passport rule change jeopardized as much as $2.6 billion in tourism revenue and 188,000 jobs in the region.

Those prospects - and Puerto Rico's and the U.S. Virgin Islands' campaigns - have also aggravated rivalries in the region's $23 billion tourism industry.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

"The technical term is breaking ranks," said Basil Smith, director of Jamaica's tourism board. "I do recognize their tremendous competitive advantage, and frankly I wish Jamaica had such a competitive advantage."

The staggered implementation of the passport rule is good news for Americans planning cruises this year and those within driving distance of Canada or Mexico, but it's galling to island governments.

Tourism officials say it gives the cruise industry a competitive advantage. Cruise ship passengers, who typically stay in port only a few hours, also spend much less money than overnight visitors.

Americans account for more than half the tourists in the region overall, but that jumps to 87 percent in the Bahamas and 73 percent in Jamaica - destinations expected to experience the most severe effects of the new passport rule.

With the wait for first-time passport applicants typically six weeks, the islands say their greatest loss will be last-minute getaways. For budget travelers, cost could also be a factor -passports cost $97; $82 for children.

Hotels and tour operators have responded with incentives such as a free day-trip, discounts, even a free massage and cocktail.

At Club Peace & Plenty, a resort on the Bahamian island of Exuma already dealing with cancellations from Americans who learned about the rule too late, a family can be reimbursed for the cost of obtaining up to four new passports.

"Some of our guests have been coming for over 30 or 40 years, and they're very used to being able to come and go with just a driver's license," said Barry Benjamin, the hotel's vice president for sales. "I really don't want to see them inconvenienced at all."

In Mexico, Marriott resorts have offered $100 traveler's checks for first-time passport users.

Since the Department of Homeland Security announced the new rules in 2005, Jamaica's tourist board has set up information booths at commuter terminals in New York, Washington and Boston, offering passport applications and free cups of the island's famous Blue Mountain coffee.

Tour operators, airlines and others still expect the new rules to catch plenty of travelers by surprise, and Caribbean tourism officials hope any damage isn't long-lasting.

In Ziemba's case, St. Lucia won't entirely lose out: She and her husband - who, unlike some of their relatives, do have passports - are leaving from San Juan on a honeymoon cruise that will stop in five islands, including the St. Lucian capital of Castries.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Picturesque Puerto Rico

loading photos...
  1. Eye on the word

    The Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan is a 16th century citadel. It was designed to keep seaborne enemies of out San Juan (thus the gun turret pictured). In 1983, the United Nations declared "El Morro" a World Heritage site. Today, it is Puerto Rico's best known fortress, with more than two million visitors a year. (Francisco Turnes / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hidden beauty

    Isabela is a coastal city in Puerto Rico whose main industries include tourism due to it's classic and secluded surfing beaches, panoramic views, rainforest, rivers, caves archaeological sites and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beacon of the times

    The Punta Higuero Lighthouse in Ricon, situated on POint Juguero, was built in 1892 by the Spanish and rebuilt in 1922 by the U.S. Coast Guard after a 1918 tsunami hit the coast of Puerto Rico that also damaged the structure. The lighthouse still works and employs an unmanned 26,000-candlepower rotatintg beacon. The beaches around the Punta Higuero Lighthouse are also popular surfing destinations, and visitors converge in the area to see the annual migration of humpback whales. (fotoamateur / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Buried in history

    The Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery), located between El Morro and the cliffs above the Atlantic of Old San Juan, is known for being one of the most picturesque burial grounds. The cemetery is also noted for its elaborate tombstones and the neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which dates to the 19th century. Many of Puerto Rico's earliest colonists are buried here. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Staying afloat

    Tourism is a big component of Puerto Rico's economy, and supplies about $1.8 billion annually, with millions of visitors visiting the island. It is estimated that about a third of the tourists come on cruise ships. (Ritu / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Traveling back in time

    A church stands on the grounds of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Withstanding time

    Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is the oldest settlement within the territory of the U.S., and spans just seven square blocks. Here, the La Fortaleza (the governor's mansion), a part of the old city wall and a gate are pictured. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historical colors

    Colorful homes line the cobblestoned streets in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Popular pastime

    Locals often gather at the many plazas of Old San Juan to chat and play dominoes. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Room with a view

    In Old San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the Americas, embellished balcony doors, such as the one pictured, are not unusual in the city that dates back to 1521. Most buildings are more than 150 years old and are evidence of the Spanish architectural heritage. (capricornis / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Natural beauty

    The El Yunque National Forest is the sole rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, according to the park's Web site, and is relatively small at 28,000 acres. It features a year-round tropical climate and immense biodiversity. About 600,000 tourists each year enjoy all that the forest has to offer, including wildlife, waterfalls, hiking and camping opportunities, and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Guiding light

    A 19th century lighthouse -- called the Los Morrillos -- sits atop a towering cliff that overlooks the waters of Cabo Rojo, located at the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico. The cliffs around the lighthouse drop more than 200 feet into the ocean. The lighthouse was originally built in 1882 to guide ships from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the lighthouse is completely automated, and a renovation cleared the interior of everything of historical significance. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments