By Andrew Mitchell
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a program that requires Canadians, Mexicans and U.S. citizens to produce passports when entering the United States, saw a relaxation of the rules last week to make it easier for youth.
The first phase of WHTI kicked in on Jan. 23, requiring passports for all air and sea travel into the U.S. The second phase, which is slated to kick in on Jan. 1, 2008, will require passports at all land crossings as well.
Last week, under pressure from state and provincial governments and various other organizations affected by the WHTI, the U.S. Homeland Security Department relaxed the rules to exempt all kids aged 15 and under, as well as teens aged 16 to 18 that are travelling with schools, youth groups and sports teams. Adults travelling with those groups will still require passports, but the youth will be able to present other identification instead.
For Whistler, the impact on tourism should be mostly positive. With passports costing around $100 in the U.S., it makes it more affordable for Americans to travel out of country.
Currently just 27 per cent of Americans carry passports, compared to about 41 per cent of Canadians. Passport offices on both sides of the border have been accepting record numbers of applications since the WHTI came into effect, creating long lineups and delays. The average additional delay in Canada remains 25 working days on top of the usual waiting periods, although hundreds of new employees are in the process of being trained and certified to speed the process.
The decision to allow youth to travel without passports is of special benefit to sports programs. Currently the Whistler Minor Hockey League’s bantam rep team is in the same division as a few teams from Washington state. The league was concerned about what would happen in 2008 once the second phase of the WHTI comes into effect.
“We haven’t had any border issues come up yet, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen in the future,” said Bill Murray, league president. “Our season is winding down right now, there’s really just the provincials left… and while there’s not too much cross-border activity with our teams, every other year we seem to have a Washington team in one of our divisions.”
The rule changes would have affected teams in the Lower Mainland that play northwestern U.S. teams on a more regular basis, and the provincial association was meeting to discuss options when the exemption came through.
The new rule changes will also benefit the Whistler International All Star Hockey Tournament, which annually attracts dozens of teams from all over the U.S. Most of those teams fly into Seattle and travel by road to Whistler, but some do fly into Vancouver.
According to tournament organizer Kevin Sopp, lifting the passport requirement will make it a lot easier to get here.
“We’ve always told people they need to travel with documentation for their kids, and signed documentation for kids when the parents aren’t coming,” he said. “We were sending out information the next month about the rule changes.
“In a nutshell, (lifting the requirement) does benefit us because it makes it a lot easier for teams to get here with all their players. It should also make it easier for the resort as a whole. More and more families are bringing their kids up, and it’s one less thing to buy and one less thing to organize.”
Discussions are underway to extend the passport exemption to seniors, and several U.S. states are lobbying Homeland Security to consider other options to requiring passports at the border in 2008. One of those options is to include more security information on drivers’ licenses, and to standardize security components of licenses. That program has seen interest from Congress and governors of border states, which supported the goal of more standardized licenses even before Sept. 11, 2001.
At the very least, members of Congress and state governors are asking Homeland Security to delay the passport rule change for land crossings to give people more time to learn about the WHTI and give passport agencies a chance to catch up with the demand.