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Since most Americans plan summer vacations in the spring, that’s when the bulk of passport applications are made. Fall is the slowest season for passport service centers. Apply now!
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updated 11/16/2007 11:06:46 AM ET 2007-11-16T16:06:46

“Get a passport before you get a tan!” implored the Mexico Tourism Board last December in preparation for the U.S. Department of State’s requirement, effective Jan. 23 of this year, that U.S. citizens carry passports — assuming they wanted to return home.

The board predicted a 2.2 percent decrease in tourism revenues as a result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a 9/11 Commission recommendation signed into law in 2004 that set the clock ticking on new passport requirements. By Jan. 23, all U.S. citizens were required to have a passport to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean by air (or a NEXUS card for Canada).

Surprise! Tourism in Mexico increased 20.2 percent in the first half of this year, compared to 2006. The Caribbean Hotel Association, Canadian Tourism Commission and tour operators paint similarly rosy pictures of U.S. travel to the provinces of the United States’ northern neighbor and islands beyond the shores of Florida.

But not so fast. Thus far, new rules have been in effect only for international air travelers. The next weapon in the WHTI arsenal — the requirement that travelers by land and sea also must carry passports — may strike closer to the heart of tourism. A 2005 study commissioned by the Caribbean Hotel Association estimated a $2.6 billion “risk,” with Jamaica — where 80 percent of U.S. visitors have lacked passports — bearing the brunt. Also according to a 2005 survey, Ontario, Canada — where 90 percent of U.S. visitors arrive by land — could see a 16.2 percent decrease in U.S. visitors for 2007-2008.

No one apparently foresaw the confusion, anxiety levels, and clamor for passports that struck this spring. U.S. citizens flooded congressional offices with calls seeking help because the Department of State couldn’t keep up with passport applications. Depending on whom you ask, the turnaround time stretched to 12 weeks or considerably longer.

“We had over 1,200 inquiries within a four-month period that started in March and went to the end of June,” says Jordan Coffman, constituent representative for U.S. Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.). “It was unprecedented. It was craziness.”

Holly Oquist, a passport and visa consultant with International Passport & Visa in Beverly Hills, Calif., says her office had to turn customers away because demand exceeded the number of applications it was allowed to submit on a daily basis to the U.S. Passport Service.

“Our courier would have to stand in line from 4 p.m. to submit the next day,” she says. Noting that her company also is registered in Washington and Colorado, she adds, “We were having to send passports to get submitted in other states.”

“I was really impressed with the staff in the field offices,” says one State Dept. official. “I saw things as heroic as driving out to the airport [to deliver a passport].”

In the mad rush, passport applicants may not only have been frustrated and confused, they may also have been overcharged: over the past year the government collected at least $111.4 million more in passport fees than its stated costs, congressional investigators say. Both the State Dept. and U.S. Postal Service are implicated, and Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y have asked the Bush administration for an accounting of where exactly passport profits are going.

One thing that is certain is that almost 18.4 million passports were issued for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Earlier in September, the State Dept. announced that processing times were back to normal (now four to six weeks). “The difference is that we have added a lot of personnel,” says the State Dept. official. “We brought on 400 new people ... and are continuing to hire more.”

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But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, the plot thickens. The critical question is when land and sea requirements will take effect. Both houses of Congress have passed homeland security spending bills that call for implementation no sooner than June 2009. The Department of Homeland Security adamantly holds that it won’t wait that long.

Oral declarations of citizenship will no longer be accepted at border crossings as of Jan. 31, 2008, says Veronica Nur Valdes. According to the DHS spokesperson, travelers will need to present a government-issued I.D. (such as a driver’s license) and proof of citizenship (such as a certified birth certificate) or green card. “Sometime in the summer of 2008 is when we are going to begin full implementation,” she says, “You will need to present a WHTI document such as a passport.”

“The timing of 2008 simply doesn’t work,” retorts Rick Webster, vice president of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association. “We have done little or nothing as a government or nation to inform travelers of this requirement as it relates to land and sea.

“WHTI is necessary, and we support it,” he says, “but it has to be implemented correctly and at the right time. We screw this up at the border and there will be repercussions.”

“WHTI has left the perception with people that it’s difficult to cross the border,” says Arlene White, executive director of the Binational Tourism Alliance, which has offices in the Niagara Falls area where a lot of crossings take place. Other factors come into play, including skyrocketing gas prices and parity in the U.S. and Canadian dollar exchange rate. Both make travel to Canada less attractive than in the past, and confusion surrounding the passport issue only compounds the situation.

“You hear people interviewed basically say, ‘I’m not going to buy a passport just to cross the border. I’ll just go other places,’” White says.

Greg Hermus, associate director of the Conference Board of Canada/Canadian Tourism Research Institute, says that while individual business travelers have or will obtain passports, businesses as a whole may be reluctant to book international conventions.

“There’s a hesitation to set up large meetings outside of the United States if most of your membership is American and you are not sure all your members have passports,” he says.

U.S. citizens have been “deterred and confused” by questions surrounding what documents they need to travel to Canada, says Chris Jones, vice president of public affairs for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada. “I think there’s also a little bit of skepticism toward having a national government-authenticated ID document when people have been used to crossing the border with a driver’s license,” he says. “We want the DHS and Congress to accept the idea of an enhanced driver’s license. We think that ultimately would be a preferred solution.”

Jones says he joined the Business for Economic and Secure Trade and Tourism in lobbying legislators in late September for such a WHTI-compliant driver’s license — a year after an initial lobbying effort. “It was a very different atmosphere this time,” he says. “It had been lukewarm about a year ago. Now there's been a significant change in receptiveness.”

DHS has proposed the REAL ID, an enhanced driver’s license/identification card that incorporates security features into the application process and the card itself. But when that option will be available is up in the air.

“We expect to announce a final ruling sometime in the near future,” is the most Nur Valdes will say.

Meanwhile, the Travel Industry Association is optimistic that legislators will get the extension they seek to June 2009.

“I don’t think one date change [in the spending bills] will trigger a veto,” Webster says. “There are much bigger fish to fry.”

Or maybe, he adds, they’ll end up with a compromise. “Maybe it will be delayed, but not as late as June 2009. This is politics, and anything is possible.”

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