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Around this time last year, Hurricane Wilma, the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, ripped across the Caribbean, leaving remnants still visible today. Though much of the damage in the 11 countries affected by the storm has been repaired, and this hurricane season has been relatively quiet, Caribbean countries are bracing for a different kind of storm, an economic one. Officials there fear a new U.S. travel policy could batter the region’s tourism industry. Beginning Jan. 8, 2007, Americans traveling to Canada, Mexico, and certain Caribbean countries by air must show a passport upon return to the United States. Before, travelers were only required to have a driver’s license or birth certificate when visiting these countries. Last month, Congress finalized details of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, postponing the deadline for people traveling from those countries by land and sea to obtain their passport until at least January 2008. Caribbean officials met last week at the 29th annual Caribbean Tourism Conference in the Bahamas to discuss, among other things, the policy’s impact on the economy. According to World Travel and Tourism Council statistics, the Caribbean stands to lose about $2.6 million in foreign exchange and up to 188,000 tourism-related jobs as a result of the January 2007 implementation of the passport requirement. About 4.5 million U.S. travelers visit the Caribbean each year and about 44 percent do not have a passport, according to a Department of Homeland Security economic analysis of the policy. The travel policy is part of the Bush administration’s plan to implement the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which, in an effort to secure the nation’s borders, requires the Departments of State and Homeland Security to demand that all U.S. travelers, U.S. citizens, and foreign nationals have a passport when entering the United States. In a statement, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, secretary general for the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization, compared the recent amendment to “a Category Six hurricane” for the Caribbean region. (Scientifically, a Category 5 hurricane is the most powerful storm.) “The affected Caribbean nations are extremely disappointed with this outcome because the potential economic impact on their business could be catastrophic,” Vanderpool-Wallace said in the statement, adding that some of the affected areas will be taking “some specific action on this matter.” That action could consist of more aggressive lobbying in Washington by Caribbean hotel and tourism officials. But time is running short. THE LITTLE BLUE BOOK In the wee hours of the night, just before Congress adjourned earlier this month, an amendment prolonging the passport deadline for cruise ship travelers was passed. It was a move the Department of Homeland Security was not too eager to make. The DHS wanted the regulation to go into effect as soon as possible, but lobbying efforts by cruise lines and their supporters in Congress were strong, says Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied for the extension for both cruise lines and airlines. Cruise lines fought for an extension because it would allow passengers who didn’t have a passport ample time to get one, Amador says. While the Chamber was also trying to push for an extension on air travel, airline companies supported the initial date and did not lobby for an extension. “If the main lobby group for that particular industry says it’s OK with them, then it makes it more difficult for you to get an extension,” Amador says, adding that most airlines believed many passengers already had their passports and that those who didn’t would obtain one. The primary focus for the Air Transport Association, the lobby arm for U.S. airline companies, was to back the security aspects of the measure, says spokeswoman Victoria Day. The group believes the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative would better “secure our borders while facilitating the international travel-document inspection process by airline and security employees,” she says. Though the ATA was concerned about the timing of the implementation, that concern was not related to how the move might affect the Caribbean tourism industry. Day says the ATA had not communicated directly with any Caribbean officials about the issue. She says ATA urged that the implementation date for air passengers not coincide with a heavy travel season. The ATA also recommended the Departments of State and Homeland Security undertake an aggressive public awareness campaign to publicize the major change in passport policy. Johnson JohnRose, communications director for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said his group supports the United States’ efforts to increase security at the borders, but only when the implementation of the policy does not discourage commerce or tourism. “We are concerned that the acceleration of the implementation deadline for airline passengers to Jan. 8, 2007, does not provide ample advance notice to enable the public to obtain passports for air entries,” JohnRose said in a statement, adding that most travelers to the Caribbean travel by airplane. The DHS report on the policy states that 107,000 U.S. travelers may forgo trips to the Caribbean during the first year the rule is in effect and that travelers would spend between $139 million and $156 million on passports. After the cruise liners won their extension, the huge lapse in time between the requirement for air and that for land and sea travel was created to help prevent an influx of people going to get documents at the same time, says Jarrod Agen, a DHS spokesman. According to the DHS, Canada is likely to see a drop of 206,000 tourists who normally use air travel, and Mexico might see a decline of 333,000 U.S. travelers next year. “It is incomprehensible that the United States government would approve an amendment that excludes air arrivals from the Caribbean and thereby grant an additional advantage to cruise lines,” Vanderpool-Wallace said in his statement. The Caribbean Tourism Organization reports that many Caribbean tourists travel to the region by plane and don’t use a passport. “Americans will not lose their vacations, but many Caribbean countries will lose American visitors,” JohnRose added.
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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