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Whistler optimistic about new passport rules

May be confusion at first, but no long-term concerns over tourism



The recent announcement by the U.S. State Department that it would require Americans to have a passport or biometric I.D. card to re-enter the country has been greeted with some concern by B.C.’s tourism industry.

The Council of Tourism Associations of B.C. has noted that Americans represent approximately 25 per cent of the B.C. tourism market, and is wary that the changes could be a setback for that market.

COTA is a member of the Perimeter Clearance Coalition, which is advocating that the Perimeter Clearance Card program, including Nexus and Fast cards, continue to be accepted as proof of citizenship at border crossings. The cards are used by frequent cross-border business travellers, as well as American residents that keep residences in places like Whistler.

COTA is also developing a long-term strategy to ensure that the impacts on tourism are mitigated.

In Whistler, there is optimism that the impact will be minimal.

"Initially I think it’s going to be a little problematic, a few people are going to be stopped, but I think (passports) are going to become the norm in the very near future," said Mayor Hugh O’Reilly. "We have had a great relationship and haven’t required passports in the past, but the new reality is this.

"I never used to carry a passport, but now I haven’t been without my passport for the past four years. It doesn’t take long for this to become an accepted practice."

Although there is some cost involved – a U.S. passport costs $97 for 10 years – O’Reilly believes most Americans will pay.

"I think most Americans are pretty supportive of anything that provides security, and they understand why this is being done. It’s like standing in lines at airports, nobody likes it but they understand the reasons behind it."

Tourism Whistler believes the impact will be minimal, but says communication is essential.

"Definitely some tourism lobbying groups will lobby on behalf of the B.C. tourism industry to see if they can change the policy, but I see our role as focusing on the consumer – making sure they know what the (passport) requirements are, and trying to make it as easy for them as possible," said Arlene Schieven, vice president of marketing for Tourism Whistler.

"I think there will be a very strong communication strategy to make sure people know. We always want to make sure the travel experience is as seamless as possible, so in the future that means letting everyone know who is coming here to bring a passport."

Schieven believes most Americans that travel outside of the U.S. already have passports.

"It’s not a large percentage of the U.S. that travels outside the country, so we’re already getting those people that are more experienced travellers. I think for our target market we won’t see a huge drop in numbers because these are the people that won’t see a passport as a barrier," she said.

The U.S. State Department Announcement caught Tourism Whistler by surprise, but there are still a few years before the policy will be implemented.

"(Having passports) might actually speed things up a bit, which is one good way of looking at this," added Schieven.

The new passport or biometric card policy will apply to visitors to the U.S. and Americans returning home from abroad, and it’s likely that Canada will follow the convention and reciprocate the policy at home.

The new measures will come into effect for air and sea travellers at the end of 2006, and will be implemented at all land crossings starting Jan. 1, 2008.

By the end of this year, Canadians will also require passports to travel by air or sea to the Caribbean, Bermuda, South or Central America if they have a stopover in the U.S.

Currently only an estimated 20 per cent of Americans and 25 per cent of Canadians have valid passports. In Canada, a passport lasts for five years and costs $87. In the U.S. a passport is $97, and is good for 10 years. Waiting times on both sides of the border for passports can be as long as three months.

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