New U.S. Passport Deadline Causes Outcry

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced stringent new passport requirements for visitors returning from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, all three destinations demanded a level playing field—especially the Caribbean, which at one point was battling a deadline set a full year ahead of the other two countries. As of last week, the deadlines are equal but now there are dismaying disparities between modes of travel, with land and cruise travel being cut a break that isn't being extended to those traveling by air. A recent amendment to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative delays the implementation of the new passport requirements until June 1, 2009 for land crossings at the Mexican and Canadian borders and for cruise passengers coming to the U.S. from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The initiative still requires all U.S. citizens traveling by air to these regions to have a passport by Jan. 8, 2007. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace

"This is a category six hurricane," says Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, secretary general for the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization. "It is incomprehensible that the United States government would approve an amendment that excludes air arrivals from the Caribbean and thereby grant an additional advantage to cruise lines in the Caribbean."

Tom Bukaty, president of All-Inclusive Resort Travel in Margate, FL, is also not happy about the passport regulations. "We just lost a January resort booking for six people," he says. "Instead of paying the passport fees, they decided to book a cruise with us instead." This resulted in a $6,000 resort booking dropping down to a $2,800 cruise booking. In Bukaty's opinion, "The Caribbean and Mexican hoteliers ought to be screaming—evidently the cruise lobbyists got their point across."

"The deadline should have been extended for Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, to give them more time to prepare," says Jan LaPointe, director of marketing & distribution, AMResorts. "At the very least there should have been a compromise establishing a reduced fee for passports."

Congress has endorsed an alternate instrument for cruise and land passengers, a new travel document known as the Passenger Access Security Service Card (PASS) for sea and land border use in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda, to be required after the June 2009 deadline. The technology is still being perfected for the proposed wallet-sized cards, which would be imbedded with radio-frequency identification information. The application process for the PASS cards, which are described as "economical," would be the same as for a passport. PASS cards, however, won't be sufficient for air travelers returning to the U.S.; these travelers will still need to produce a passport.

Some hoteliers are concerned about how new passport regulations will affect them; AMResorts' Dreams Los Cabos Suites Golf Resort & Spa is pictured

John McBride, honeymoon specialist at Naperville, IL-based Dream Travel, has been advising clients to apply for passports ever since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative reared its ugly head. "None of our destination wedding clients are moving away from the Caribbean because of the passport regulations," says McBride. "We have several Caribbean weddings already scheduled for 2007." Recent passport fairs held at the Naperville post office have encouraged McBride: "I've stopped by several times on weekends and on each occasion there were 250 people or more, including families."

From the outset of the proposed passport regulations, study after study has predicted these new requirements will have a devastating effect on the Caribbean economy.

"Tourism is the lifeline of the Caribbean, where the industry spans the depth and breadth of the national economies and represents as high as 97 percent of all direct and indirect jobs in the country," says Peter J. Odle, president of the Caribbean Hotel Association. "For the Caribbean nations affected, the economic impact has the potential to be disastrous."