- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A major hurricane is about to hit the Caribbean, the region’s tourism industry predicts. But it has nothing to do with the weather.

Rather, Caribbean tourism organizations are alarmed by new passport requirements set to take effect in January that they say will have a catastrophic impact on the Caribbean economy.

“Because of the potential far-ranging effect of this action, there is nothing potentially more devastating,” said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, secretary-general for the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization. “This is a Category 6 hurricane.”

Congress in September approved the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that will require Americans flying from the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, South America, Central America and Bermuda to show a passport when re-entering the United States beginning Jan. 8.

The law is intended to strengthen border security after the September 11 attacks. It is the result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which required the State and Homeland Security departments to develop a plan to require all travelers, regardless of nationality, to present a passport or other secure document when entering the country.

An amendment sponsored by two senators from border states — Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican — will allow for the passport requirement to be delayed until June 1, 2009, for Americans returning from those countries by land or sea — but not by air.

The amendment was approved after pressure from the cruise industry, which worried that passengers wouldn’t meet the January deadline for obtaining passports, which cost $97 and typically take weeks to obtain.

Caribbean tourism officials say the restrictions will discourage Americans from traveling to the region without a passport and will particularly stifle “spontaneous, last-minute travel.”

They fear Americans seeking sunny vacation spots will turn to alternatives such as Florida and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Tourism is the lifeline of the Caribbean,” said Peter J. Odle, president of the Caribbean Hotel Association. “For the Caribbean nations affected, the economic impact has the potential to be disastrous.”

On some Caribbean islands, tourism directly or indirectly is related to almost 100 percent of all jobs, Mr. Odle said.

The amendment will give cruise lines an unfair advantage, Mr. Vanderpool-Wallace said.

“It is incomprehensible that the United States government would approve an amendment that excludes air arrivals from the Caribbean,” Mr. Vanderpool-Wallace said.

A 2005 study commissioned by the Caribbean Hotel Association predicts that requiring Americans to carry passports will cost the region 188,300 jobs and $2.6 billion annually.

The study showed that 80 percent of Americans visiting Jamaica traveled there without a passport. The study also showed that 50 percent of Americans traveling to the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, and other Caribbean islands did so without passports.

The Mexico Tourism Board says the new law will have only a temporary effect on the number of Americans traveling to Mexico because about 70 percent of Americans traveling to the county by air last year did so with a passport, even though they were not required to do so.

In the United States, the new law has received little opposition, and was supported by the Air Transport Association, a major airline-industry organization.

“We think this is a matter of national security,” association spokesman David Castelveter said.

The Travel Industry Association of America, a trade organization representing the U.S. travel industry, initially lobbied for a unified deadline for passport restrictions. But after the airline industry backed the amendment, the travel group followed suit.

“We believe the amendment passed was sufficient and appropriate,” said Rick Webster, the association’s vice president of government affairs.

Mr. Webster added that the new passport requirements shouldn’t be an undue burden for travelers because most Americans already carry passports when traveling to the Caribbean or Latin America.

Because airlines will ask Americans flying to these regions to see a passport before they leave the United States, there should be no risk of Americans not being allowed back in the country without one.

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