Thursday 21st April 2005

 

New US passport rules deliver...

Severe blow to tourism

 
 
 
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

For years United States citizens have travelled into and out of the Caribbean with no more identification documents than a drive’s license. This will change between now and January 1, 2008 and will have an adverse impact on the regional tourism industry.

It is the US government that is making the change, requiring all US citizens to have valid passports to enter the US. Consequently, they must have passports to travel out of the US.

On April 6, the US Departments of Homeland Security and State announced The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to secure and expedite travel. Under the initiative, all US citizens will be required to have a passport or other accepted secure documents to enter or re-enter the US by January 1, 2008.

In the past, Caribbean nationals have been irritated by the US requirement that they must have passports and visas to enter the US, while US nationals enter Caribbean countries on driver licences.

After 9/11, Caribbean and other non-US travellers became even more irritated with travel into the US when the US Department of Homeland Security required visitors to be fingerprinted and photographs taken of their eyeballs at US ports of entry. Many people saw this both as an intrusion on their privacy and as a humiliation.

This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that US citizens were whisked though immigration lines while visitors endured lengthy periods waiting in line to be interviewed by immigration officers.

Caribbean nationals have regarded the different treatment accorded to them and to US nationals as a double standard. They have recognised the right of the US and any other country to apply its own immigration procedures, but they have argued that these procedures should be reciprocal.

In other words, if the US required Caribbean nationals to be in possession of passports and visas to enter the US, Caribbean countries should equally require US nationals to have passports and visas to enter Caribbean countries.

But economic necessity won the day over the personal affront felt by Caribbean nationals.

Caribbean tourism relies a great deal on US tourists, and since the vast majority of Americans do not have a passport and can not be bothered to get one, Caribbean governments were content to allow them to enter their countries on driver licences.

Now, all of this has begun to change.

Anyone travelling into the US recently would have noticed that US citizens are no longer being whisked through immigration control at US ports of entry. Now, US citizens and residents are being questioned as closely as foreigners although their finger prints are not yet being taken nor are their eyeballs being photographed.

The lines for US citizens and residents at US immigration control are now as long as those for foreigners.

All of this flows from the extensive efforts by various departments of the US government to strengthen homeland security following the terrorist atrocities of 9/11.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA, also known as the 9/11 Intelligence Bill), signed into law on December 17, 2004, mandated that the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, develop and implement a plan to require US citizens and foreign nationals to present a passport, or other secure document when entering the United States.

An official release from the US Department for Homeland Security quotes Acting Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security, Randy Beardsworth, as saying: “Our goal is to strengthen border security and expedite entry into the United States for US citizens and legitimate foreign visitors. By ensuring that travellers possess secure documents, such as the passport, Homeland Security will be able to conduct more effective and efficient interviews at our borders.”

The department did say that additional documents are also being examined to determine their acceptability for travel.

However, such documents would have to establish the citizenship and identity of the bearer, enable electronic data verification and checking, and include significant security features.

The point is that US citizens and residents travelling on documents such as drivers’ licences is now fast becoming a thing of the past, and Caribbean tourism industry will be affected by it.

There should not be an assumption that US Citizens will now automatically apply for passports.

The reality is that only a comparative small number of US citizens have passports, and these are business people or those with higher incomes who travel on vacation to Europe, Asia or countries outside of the Western Hemisphere.

Under the new rules, a Caribbean vacation cannot be spontaneous. It will entail Americans being in possession of passports or similar documents.

This is a reality that the tourism industry in the Caribbean has to take account of now.

The industry should not expect the US public to know about the requirement’s that they have passports by January 1, 2008 even though this is a stipulation of their own US Department of Homeland Security. It is surprising how little public attention has been given to this development by mainstream media in the US.

A programme of education should be launched in the US with travel agents and tour operators. And, national and regional tourist offices based in the US should each start initiatives of their own to educate the US public about the requirement for passports and how to get them.

Undoubtedly, organisations such as the Caribbean Hotels Association (CHA) and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) are alert to the necessity to launch such an education initiative in the US. But, money will have to be invested in the initiative from both the national and regional levels, and allocations should be made for such monies now for the years 2006 and 2007.

Failure to do so will see January 1, 2008 arrive with a significant reduction in the number of US tourists visiting the Caribbean.

The educational task will be difficult, but it is not impossible, particularly if it is presented as exactly what it is: a US government requirement of its own citizens to strengthen the security arrangements of their own country.

The problem is overcoming a lifelong US habit of not needing a passport to travel to the Caribbean.

It may be argued that the US government will educate its citizens about the passport requirements and there is no need for the Caribbean to do so. But, accepting this argument would be dangerously short-sighted.

The financial implications for the Caribbean tourism industry of spontaneous vacations not occurring, or holidays being cancelled for lack of a passport, are quite significant.

There will be a reduction in the numbers who visit the region in the immediate period after the new passport requirements are introduced on January 1, 2008; it will be worse if the Caribbean does not launch an educational programme of its own in the US.

The writer is a former Caribbean diplomat, now corporate executive, who publishes widely on Small States in the global community.

Responses to: [email protected]

 

 

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