Thursday 28th April 2005

 

Dealing with impact of new US passport rules

Swift action needed

 
 
 
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

I am revisiting the impact on Caribbean tourism of the US government requirement that Americans have passports to re-enter the US because the matter is urgent.

In just eight months time, on January 1, 2006, US citizens re-entering the US from the Caribbean must be in possession of a valid US passport.

This is an extremely short period in which to prepare.

In a nutshell the problem is a significantly reduced number of US visitors to the region, a significantly reduced number of airlines and cruise ships coming to the Caribbean, and a significant reduction in jobs and the amount of money earned from tourism by the region. In other words, it can be catastrophic.

Here are the facts of the matter.

Only 15 per cent of Americans have passports. This means that most US tourists to the Caribbean have been in the habit of travelling to the region mostly on drivers’ licences.

The Director of Tourism of Jamaica, Paul Pennicook, confirmed that more than 50 per cent of US visitors to Jamaica in 2004 travelled without a passport. The tourism authorities in the Bahamas are also aware that US citizens travel with birth certificates and a government-issued photo identification.

Given these realities, it is evident that the requirement for a passport will greatly reduce the number of cruise ship passengers and passengers on airlines who visit the region. Spontaneous travel will be particularly affected.

As the number of people who can travel declines, so too will the number of flights and cruise ships into the region. Neither planes nor cruise ships will fly or sail without an optimum number of passengers, so that even where US people have passports, their opportunities for travel to the region will be decreased.

Already, many Eastern Caribbean governments are subsidising the flights of some US carriers into their countries. These governments can hardly afford to subsidise even more flights, particularly if the number of passengers is greatly reduced. Yet the US airlines themselves say “every single flight on average must be at east 80 per cent full of paying passengers to avoid losing money.”

The US airlines are in deep financial trouble that is worsening with higher fuel prices. Just recently, John Heimlich, Vice President and Chief Economist of Air Transport Association of America said, “Over the last four years, the industry—in total—has recorded over $32 billion in losses... We are projecting additional losses of at least $5 billion in 2005.”

He also says that he “expects some airlines to go out of business—it’s all a question of how quickly.”

It requires no great genius to see that if the number of passengers on planes into the Caribbean is reduced by the US government requirement that such passengers should have passports, airlines that are already in financial trouble will reduce flights in to the region.

The Caribbean-owned airline industry— BWIA and Air Jamaica in particular—will also face serious difficulties.

They too are mired in financial problems, and since the major portion of their operations are to the US and roughly half their traffic are US tourists, they will be even worse off.

Authorities in the Bahamas and Jamaica have been particularly vocal in complaining that the new requirement isn’t fair because Canada and Mexico have an extra year to prepare for the measure.

But, it has to be recalled that Mexico and Canada would have been given a longer period because of US membership with them in the North American Free Trade Association (Nafta).

Obviously, Americans are doing more business in Mexico and Canada because of Nafta. In this particular circumstance, the US would not want to hinder the free trade objectives of Nafta if they recognise that many Americans have been visiting these two countries for business without passports.

Nonetheless, acknowledging the Nafta relationship should not stop Caribbean government and tourism officials from lobbying the US for an extension of the January 1, 2006 deadline. Every effort should be made to impress on the US authorities the importance not only to the Caribbean, but to the US itself, of extending the time.

While it is understood that it is US concern about its security that is pushing the need for better identification of persons entering the US as US citizens, the US also needs to take account of the high reliance of many Caribbean countries on tourism, and the consequences that a decline would have on their economies and on the US itself.

These consequences include higher unemployment, more crime including a vulnerability to aiding drug trafficking to the United States, and higher immigration into the US.

The US should be encouraged to see that an extension of time to allow the region’s tourism to prepare better for the new passport measures would help the Caribbean to maintain employment, fight drug trafficking and stem immigration.

Beyond lobbying with the US, Caribbean authorities have to recognise two things.

First, there will be no rush by Americans to get passports. Americans travel mostly within the US for which they do not require passports. US citizens will get passports only when they believe they need them.

Second because the Caribbean is aware that US citizens now need passports, it should not be assumed that this information is widely known in the US.

Most Americans get their information from television, and even then only in a limited way. Unless, the local and national television stations headline this story, it will not be widely known.

In any event, even if the information is widely known, no one will do anything about getting a passport unless they are actually planning to travel. Then they will need information on how to get a passport.

These two things suggest that Caribbean countries that rely on US tourism cannot depend on the information being disseminated by the US authorities; they have to take the initiative themselves.

It calls for a close working relationship with the US airlines, US cruise ships, US tour operators and US travel agents that serve the Caribbean. They have a vested interest in addressing the problem since they too stand to loose money.

The regional tourism organisations such as the Caribbean Hotels Association (CHA) and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) as well as the individual Caribbean Tourist offices in the US should embark upon an immediate campaign to provide educational material for US travel agents, tour operators on the need for US Citizens to have passports and where and how to get them.

Importantly, the material has to explain that it is the US government that has made this requirement in the interest of US homeland security. Americans have to see it as their patriotic duty and in their own interests to get passports.

The US government itself will take some time to issue passports. The lag time for issuing passports is 6 to 8 weeks. If the number of applications increases, this lag time might also increase.

In this connection, Caribbean governments and tourism officials should also work closely with the US government to ensure that resources are placed behind the process for issuing passports, including ensuring that there is an adequate number in stock.

The introduction by the US of the requirement that their citizens have passports to re-enter the US comes at a time when Caribbean tourism and the Caribbean aviation industry can least afford it. The impact on Caribbean economies, more reliant on ever on tourism, could be very severe.

Dealing with the problem is urgent and the support of all groups within society should be garnered to help deal with it. But the focus must be in the US itself, and this work should start immediately.

(The writer is a former Caribbean diplomat, now corporate executive, who publishes widely on small states in the global community)

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