June 1 will mark one year since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) came into effect for land borders separating the U.S. from Canada and Mexico, requiring all Americans to carry passports when returning home from those countries.
The initiative was fought by tourism destinations and associations on both sides of the border out of fear that it would stifle travel.
One year in, the jury is still out on whether the requirement has had any impact or how much, given the continued impact of the recession, currency fluctuations, the 2010 Olympics and other factors that prevented or encouraged travel.
According to the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Art (MOTCA), they do not have any specific data on passport usage, just the usual customs data showing the volume of international arrivals. Numbers are down slightly, while others are skewed. During the Olympic month of February, for example, B.C. hosted roughly 250,000 visitors.
The ministry has been working with tourism associations and the industry to get the word out about the new passport requirement. On both sides of the border the number of passport holders has increased in response.
According to Passport Canada roughly 59 per cent of residents carry passports, up more than five per cent from a year ago and more than double the 2004 figure of 25 per cent. Roughly 4.8 million passports were issued between April 2009 and March 2010, which includes renewals. That number is similar to 4.8 million passports issued in 2007-08 before the WHTI was applied to air and sea borders.
In B.C., the percentage of passport holders is even higher than the national average, with roughly 62 per cent of citizens holding passports a year ago.
South of the border the numbers are smaller percentage-wise. In 2004 roughly 20 per cent of Americans carried passports. That increased to 28 per cent by 2009. Now, according to Brenda Sprague of the U.S. State Department, roughly a third of Americans carry passports, an increase of roughly five per cent in the past year. That translates to roughly 15 million new passports issued.
However, the cost of issuing passport books is also being increased from $100 for first-time passport holders to $135, to cover the costs associated. A cheaper passport card is available that is only accepted at U.S. and Mexican borders that can be purchased for $45.
British Columbians can also purchase enhanced drivers licenses that are accepted at land borders. As well, all Americans and Canadians crossing the border frequently can apply for Nexus cards that can be used at air, land and sea crossings. On April 30 the Canadian government announced that 400,000 Nexus cards had been sold on both sides of the border.
According to Tourism Whistler spokesman Jeff McDonald it's impossible to tell how the WHTI may be impacting travel to the resort.
"It would be very difficult to break out the WHTI requirement form all the factors affecting business levels," he said. "Of course we're concerned about any potential obstacles for visitors to Whistler, but generally speaking people who travel frequently are people who were not affected by the new regulations. A typical visitor to Whistler from the U.S. already had or knew how to obtain the appropriate documentation to meet the new WHTI requirements when they took effect.
"Anecdotally, I am not aware of lost business due to the WHTI regulations. The travel industry and individual travellers adjust and adapt to changing environments. And I believe that if there were going to be impacts they would have been felt in the first few weeks after the new regulations took effect."