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 industryin
totalhas 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 businessits 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 particularwill 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 isnt fair
because Canada and Mexico have an extra year to prepare for
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 regions 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
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
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
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
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