- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Spring break travelers are opting for U.S. destinations this year in the first major test of new rules that require Americans to have a passport to fly from Mexico, the Caribbean or Canada.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect Jan. 23, requires U.S. citizens flying from Mexico, Canada and most of the Caribbean — not including the U.S. Virgin Islands — to carry a passport. Previously, only a birth certificate or driver’s license was necessary.

The measure has prompted a record number of passport applications and lengthened wait times, according to the State Department.

Last month, the number of passport applications spiked 24 percent, said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services. The department expects to process 17 million passport applications this fiscal year, compared with 12 million in fiscal 2006 and 8 million in fiscal 2004.

The concern over not getting a passport in time or avoiding a passport altogether has made Florida and Texas destinations such as Miami and South Padre Island more popular, according to student travel groups. Exact figures won’t be available until after the traditional spring break period, which runs through mid-April.

Sales to domestic spring break locations are up 18 percent at STA Travel North America, the largest student travel agency, said spokeswoman Christi Day. Sales to destinations in Mexico are down “a bit,” she said.

Mexico is still the top destination for the approximately 15,000 spring break travelers who go through Student Travel Services, said Dean Goodwin, national director of sales at the Glen Burnie, Md., travel agency. But this year, Florida and Texas locations rose in popularity, too.

“It was a stronger sell in those destinations this year,” he said.

Mexico and parts of the Caribbean say they’re feeling the pinch.

Mexican Tourism Secretary Rodolfo Elizondo said earlier this year he expected the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative to reduce tourism revenue by 2.2 percent this year. He said he based the estimate on a U.S. Commerce Department report that said about 318,000 fewer Americans would likely not travel to Mexico because of the new requirement.

The Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau reported that spring break travel is expected to be about the same as last year, said Patricia Lopez Mancera, director of public relations. She declined to provide figures. But last year, thousands of hotel rooms were unavailable because of hurricane damage.

About 5,000 spring break travelers are expected in Jamaica Hotel & Tourist Association hotels this year, compared with twice that many last year and 26,000 five years ago, said Horace Peterkin, president of the association.

Mr. Peterkin attributed this year’s decline to the passport requirement, as well as the rotating popularity of the Caribbean islands.

“I know Americans treasure every dollar,” he said. “If they can avoid spending $100, some of them will. They will opt to do another vacation option, especially when it comes to families. [Passports for] a family of four can cost $500.”

The passport requirements have exacerbated the move away from international, MTV-style party trips and toward educational or cultural trips, said Michael Palmer, executive director of the Student and Youth Travel Association, a Lake Orion, Mich., trade group.

He said beach destinations, such as those in Mexico and the Caribbean, have been declining in popularity since about 2000.

“[Students] are more interested in multipurpose travel,” he said, citing service trips and more high schools and colleges planning academic trips over spring break.

“If you get some buddies and think it would be cool to go lay on the beach, you’re not going to get a passport at this point,” he said. “[The State Department] said they’d have staff in place to deal with the extra burden, but obviously that has not happened.”

The State Department says it is working overtime to get passports out in time.

It has hired 250 additional passport workers over the past two years and has plans to hire an additional 150 this year. The department has its Portsmouth, N.H., passport facility operating nearly round the clock and plans to open a new facility in Hot Springs, Ark., next month.

“We really are truly committed to getting passports to everybody traveling on time,” Ms. Barrett said.

The department estimates that a routine passport application will take 10 weeks to process instead of the usual six and an expedited passport application will take four weeks instead of two.

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