- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Passports would be required for travelers entering and re-entering the United States from Canada, Caribbean countries and Mexico, the State and Homeland Security departments announced yesterday.

The government’s proposal is part of a tightening of border security that would be phased in over the next three years.

“Our goal is to strengthen border security and expedite entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors,” said Randy Beardsworth, acting homeland security undersecretary for border and transportation security.

Americans re-entering the United States from Canada, the Caribbean, Bermuda, South and Central America, and Mexico would be required to have passports. Canadians, who can now enter the United States with just a driver’s license, and Mexican citizens also would be required to have passports or other accepted documents to cross the border.

The travel industry is worried that the proposed rules would make travel more expensive and deter Americans from leaving home, which would hurt an industry that is finally rebounding after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Our concern is about security and the freedom of travel being balanced,” said Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

“We want people to feel safe leaving the country and prevent erecting too many obstacles that people stay home or spend money on other gadgets,” he said.

U.S. passports, which are valid for 10 years, cost $97 for citizens who are 16 or older. It usually takes four to six weeks for passports to be issued. It costs an additional $60 to expedite the process.

The government’s travel initiative would be rolled out in phases — first affecting air and sea transportation and then land crossings.

By Dec. 31, travel to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America would require a passport or accepted documents. Travel to and from Mexico and Canada would require the new documentation by the end of 2006. By Dec. 31, 2007, it would be needed at all air, sea and land crossings.

“The travel industry as a whole has generally supported passports to travel to and from the United States,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. “It’s good for security.”

But the timeline may be too aggressive, he said.

The rules may not be finalized until as late as October, giving little time for travelers to get the required document before the end of the year.

The government is requesting input and comments from the public. ASTA plans to file comments.

Many travel agencies already recommend that travelers buy passports even if they are traveling domestically.

“It’s a good thing to have,” said Monica Baker, owner of Monica Baker Travel Inc. in Columbia, Md. “It makes everything easier.”

Bermuda, for instance, prefers that U.S. visitors have passports. Traveling to and from the island currently requires proof of U.S. citizenship, like an original birth certificate and government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license.

“It’s not a bad thing,” said Stuart Carroll, owner of Carroll Travel in the District. “If the State Department can gear up to process the heightened demand, it won’t be a problem.”

Mr. Carroll said, however, that the proposed rules might deter people who plan trips at the last minute — an increasing trend.

If they get an itch for a quick getaway, their destinations may be limited unless they already own passports.

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