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Tour operators scramble to assist Mexicans with visas

Some travellers cancelling Canadian vacations and heading to the United States

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Arleth Sevilla's office has been hectic since the Canadian government announced last week Mexicans now need visas to enter Canada.

Thirty-eight of her clients have cancelled trips to British Columbia, and 18 others have decided to travel to countries other than Canada since Tuesday, July 14.

"The new rules have affected us a lot because July is peak season for Mexicans travelling to Canada," said the manager with Julia Tours, a Mexican tour company that works with Tourism Whistler. "We have had cancellations and changes to itineraries, mainly to the United States and Mexico."

Customers have told Julia Tours it is easier to get a visa to the United States than to Canada, and "illogical things are happening like there are families that want to travel to Canada and only one or two people from the family gets a visa."

The list of paperwork Mexicans must submit to the Canadian embassy to get a visa includes itineraries and airplane tickets, so people have to book their holidays before they can get a visa.

Bank statements and income statements from the past six months as well as house and car documents are also required.

"With the documents mentioned, you have to reserve and pay for your trip, and then ask for the visa," said Sevilla. "If the visa is rejected, you lose your money... People have paid about $30,000 Canadian and can't travel."

The scramble for visas at Julia Tours follows an abrupt announcement last week by Canada's Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, that all Mexicans travelling to Canada now need visas. Kenney said this will reduce the number of bogus refugee claims Canada receives from Mexico, which has almost tripled since 2005.

Kenney's decision caused an uproar in Canada's tourism industry as tour operators grappled with the sudden changes. Mexican visitors make up Canada's sixth largest tourist group, and in 2007 over 260,000 Mexicans travelled to Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

Last week, thousands of Mexicans descended on the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City to get visas for their already booked flights. The lineup extended around the block and some Mexicans even camped outside the embassy.

To handle the sudden load, the Canadian embassy added 55 extra staff to work on visa requests, said Danielle Norris, department spokesperson from Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Canada. She said the embassy is taking the change very seriously, and the fee for the paperwork is the same for all countries, at $75 per visa.

Not all Mexican tour operators are stressed by the new visa requirements, though.

Moises Braverman, from travel company Viajes Holam, said there is "nothing difficult" about the new process, and he does not think the visas will prevent Mexicans from travelling to Canada.

"We have had a lot of co-operation from the (Canadian) Embassy, and it has been very easy," said Braverman. "Of course, I have families travelling to Whistler and to many parts of Canada. At the beginning, everyone was really scared, but then we got used to the idea."

Mexicans make up under one per cent of Whistler's summer visitors and between one and two per cent of annual visitors, according to statistics from Tourism Whistler. Visitors from Mexico typically travel to Whistler during December for their Christmas holidays and in April for their Semana Sanata two-week Easter holiday.

A senior manager with Tourism Whistler said this week the organization is working closely with the Canadian Tourism Commission's (CTC) offices in both Vancouver and Mexico to "recognize the visa requirement is a barrier."

Shawna Lang said Tourism Whistler is not sure at this point what kind of impact the visas will have on Whistler business, but airlines have told them several Mexican travellers have not been able to make their confirmed flights this week.

Lang said CTC is launching a campaign in Mexico to deliver a "We welcome you" message to encourage Mexicans to still travel to Canada.

Meanwhile, Whistler's Member of Parliament is standing behind his government's announcement.

John Weston told Pique Newsmagazine last week that while he recognizes the new rules will affect tourism in the Sea to Sky corridor, the Conservative government's decision is a "typical case where the government has had to weigh priorities."

"This has been an attempt to deal with the issue, which is not only a matter of abusing our refugee system, but it can also be a security liability as well for Canada."

Weston added that, having visited Whistler with Kenney, he is confident the minister is aware of the need to ensure the flow of tourism for the Olympics, Paralympics and generally.

In response to Kenney's decision, however, Mexico's government is now requiring Canadian diplomats and officials obtain visas to travel to the Central American country.

Mexico's foreign secretary, Patricia Espinosa, made the announcement during a meeting with Canada's Foreign Affairs Minster, Lawrence Cannon, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington D.C.  The new restrictions don't affect Canadian tourists travelling to Mexico.

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