- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The travel industry threw its support behind new passport requirements the federal government announced yesterday.

Passport cards, a cheaper alternative to a passport, will be required to enter the United States from Canada or Mexico, a move the travel industry said will be a welcome alternative to pricey passports.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, developed by the Departments of State and Homeland Security, requires U.S. citizens to show proof of identity and citizenship beyond a driver’s license to enter the country from Canada or Mexico by air after next Dec. 31. The travel industry said trips would decrease significantly and become more tedious with a passport requirement.

Students, the elderly and people living close to the United States’ borders with Canada and Mexico would have the hardest time conforming to the old passport requirements, the travel executives said.

“This is absolutely a great idea,” said Paul Ruben, senior vice president for legal and industry affairs at the American Society for Travel Agents in Alexandria. “What we need is something that is relatively inexpensive, fairly easy to get and not cumbersome to carry to serve as a quick facilitation device to get back and forth over the border.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the passport cards, to be issued later this year, would ensure border safety and help prevent counterfeiting while keeping wait times short at ports of entry.

The U.S. market share of international travel has fallen 35 percent since 1992, a drop the Travel Industry Association (TIA) blames on tough visa requirements imposed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The travel industry has been concerned that tighter border security would make it more difficult for foreign travelers to enter the country, further reducing U.S. market share.

“This announcement goes a long way toward sending the proper signal to our friends around the world that we want them to come visit,” said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

“This is an important step toward restoring America’s competitiveness in the world travel market. … If we find the right balance, millions of jobs, billions in revenues and an improved U.S. image around the world will be the reward,” said Mr. Rasulo, who also serves as chairman of the D.C.-based TIA this year.

The Departments of State and Homeland Security also announced plans for electronic passports, which will replace paper passports by the end of 2006.

Travel agents do not expect electronic passports to be a hassle for travelers.

“The standardization of travel documents is important,” said Stuart Carroll, owner of Carroll Travel in the District. “As long as the systems can be made secure, it’s a great idea. … It reduces the likelihood of counterfeiting.”

Luis Mendez, a travel agent at Travel Tours International Inc. in the District, said many of his business clients already have electronic passports and have reported few problems using them.

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