MP John Weston had one message to members of Whistler's business community concerned about new visa requirements for visitors and the impact of turning back individuals with criminal records at the U.S. border, and that the federal government is listening and working on solutions.
Weston spoke to business leaders in Whistler on a conference call on Feb. 10, with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney taking part in the discussions. It was the latest in a series of dialogues going back several years, which were kicked up a notch back in Spring 2011 when Tourism Whistler submitted position papers on the four major barriers to travel stemming from public policy.
One of the issues discussed was the visa requirement implemented in July 2009 that requires visitors from Mexico — frequent visitors to Whistler — to obtain travel visas. The other was the issue of Americans with minor criminal offences, such as driving under the influence convictions, being turned away at the border, and the impact that the border uncertainty is having on travel and conference bookings.
Weston said he has taken the Mexican visa issue seriously and his goal is to eventually have the visa requirement scrapped. He is currently the head of the Parliamentary Canada-Mexico Friendship Group, and visited Mexico in January to discuss the issue.
"I got great coverage of our message (in the Mexican media), and the message is that Whistler, British Columbia and Canada are open for tourism," said Weston.
Some of the changes made in the last few years to make things easier for Mexican nationals since the visa issue was implemented include open 10-year visas, getting rid of the fingerprint requirement, a winter tourism "express" program where travel agents in Mexico can obtain visa documents on behalf of their clients, a youth mobility program and a corporate express program where certain companies can have their visa applications processed quickly.
Weston said the visa requirement sent the wrong message. "For a lot of people in Mexico, Canada is a beloved ally and they were concerned that the imposition of a visa means our friendship has somehow diminished," he said. "When in fact it really shows that Canada needs to improve its refugee system and stem the flood on unsubstantiated refugee claimants."
Weston said that refuges from Mexico caused headaches for the system, which provides housing and money to refugees while they go through a process that can take up to five years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"We're working on that (refugee processing system) and improvements to that system will be brought out in the next few months, and we ... (will) continue to make it easier for Mexican nationals to visit," he said.
On the issue of Americans with criminal records being turned away at the border — an issue that could be costing the province conference-dollars as well as tourists — Weston told Whistler's business leaders that there is now more discretion for border staff to allow visitors to come in. Kenney participated in the phone call and assured Tourism Whistler and others that they would no longer be turning visitors away for minor offences.
"That's not to make our screening more lax or take away from the seriousness of a DUI as an offence, but more to balance tourism needs," said Weston.
Weston gave Whistler credit for pushing the issues forward; "... Because Whistler — the municipality and Tourism Whistler and the Whistler Chamber — have been so clear in articulating that this is a priority... I've been very active in trying to make these things happen," he said.