All the hand-wringing, the wailing, the criticism lobbed back and forth about the discriminatory nature of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, are now, basically, a waste of time.

Yet the mystery remains: Why don't people who want to travel just get a passport? After all, sooner or later, everyone needs one. Today, only 27% of Americans, about 70 million people, have a passport. Though that's double what the number was 10 years ago, according to the State Dept., it still means that 73% of Americans are dragging their feet.

It's hard to believe that they simply don't know that the WHTI is now in place. Since it's been rumored, whined about, warned about, hinted at, rehashed and discussed ad nauseam for more than two years, it certainly isn't news. In all that time, the only thing that changed was the date the regulations were to take effect.

Beginning Jan. 23, all air travelers entering or returning to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, points in the Caribbean or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere must present passports. The original date had been Jan. 7, but that was extended by the Departments of State and Homeland Security in late November.

The exceptions are U.S. citizens returning from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, both U.S. territories. 

Many recent complaints about the WHTI arose from its two-phase timeline, which gives cruise and land travelers a lot longer to comply. The rule goes into effect for air travelers this month, but travelers returning via cruise ships or by land have been given until June 2009 to get their passports (although there's talk that the date might be moved up to as early as Jan. 1, 2008).

 

So, short of standing in line with their clients at a passport application center, what are travel agents doing to be passport proactive? Mostly, they're stating the obvious, in an increasingly annoyed tone: Go get a passport.

Nothing new

When asked about WHTI, Terry McCabe of Altour International, Fair Lawn, N.J., just groaned.

"Oh God, that again," she said. "Look, this isn't new. I've been telling my clients for two years to get a passport if they didn't have one. It's the best ID anyone can have."

The charge for a new passport is $97 for an adult, good for 10 years, and $82 for a child 15 and younger, good for five years.

The way McCabe figures it, if a family of four can't afford to spend $400 for passports, they can't afford a Caribbean vacation in the first place.

All-inclusive specialist Becky Veith with Travel Experts in Raleigh, N.C., has advised every client to get a passport. "I just tell them they need it or will need it, but most of my clients already have one," she said.

Those who don't have passports are typically honeymooners who have never traveled outside the U.S. Veith directs them to the State Dept. Web site, http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html, to download an application. She also finds clients the nearest post office where they can apply in person, since some are reluctant to mail their birth certificates.

Andrie Lasapio of Imperial Majesty Cruise Line in Plantation, Fla., which specializes in two-day Nassau cruises out of Fort Lauderdale, has checked the Dept. of Homeland Security Web site (www.dhs.gov) on an hourly basis because "the information seems to change a lot."

"A lot of our clients are people who don't travel often," she said. "They still think they can use their driver's license on a cruise. We tell them to get a passport, but they're in no hurry."

Has there been a measurable drop in business that can be tracked to passport paranoia or confusion?

One St. Thomas hotelier reported winter FIT bookings down but group bookings up.

"This could be due to gas prices, the slump in home sales, mild weather, the hassle of going through airport security, air fares or total confusion in general," the hotelier said.

An all-inclusive resort operator with several properties in the Dominican Republic reported "a surge in bookings, all from Europe. Our U.S. business for the winter is down from last year at this time."

The reason?

"It could be the passport requirement," he said.

Martha Gaugher of Sterling Travel in Atlanta, was blunt. "I tell all my clients, cruise and air, to get a passport and get it now. I've heard [the passport offices] are getting slammed and are way behind in processing these applications."

Derwood Staeben, senior advisor on the WHTI for the State Dept., denied that rumor.

"There's no backlog," Staeben said. "We've been planning for this for two years because we knew there would be a big demand, and we had to ramp up."

To meet the demand, 200 new passport adjudicators (government talk for staff members who review and verify documentation sent in by applicants) have been hired in 2006, and 86 more will be added in 2007.

In addition, a new megacenter for producing passports will open in Arkansas in early spring.

"Information and data from the passport offices in the U.S. will be electronically transmitted to the center, which will then produce the physical passport," Staeben said.

In fiscal year 2006, more than 12.1 million passports were processed and issued to U.S. citizens; projections for fiscal year 2007 were that 16 million passports will be processed, according to the State Dept., which currently is processing about 275,000 applications a week, double the number compared with this time last year.

Most applications take six to eight weeks to process, though Staeben said the turnaround time right now is about four weeks.

Without passport in hand, out goes the spontaneous, on-impulse winter getaway weekend in the Caribbean, perhaps in favor of Florida, California, Arizona or Las Vegas.

Gaugher has used visa services in the past to expedite applications for her clients.

"I also suggest that my clients use the post office, send the applications by expedited air and enclose a self-addressed, paid, expedited return air form with the application. This really speeds things up," she said.

Not much panic ... yet

Passports Plus, a passport/visa service in Houston, reported "a lot of calls for information but little panic right now. That will happen in January when people want to get away fast to the beaches," a spokesman said. 

He advocated that the government enact "a grace period when the rule goes into effect on Jan. 23."

Although the State Dept. didn't call it that, Staeben said, "We are working out procedures for emergencies. We will not strand any American citizen in need."

What's also helping spread the word is a lot of media coverage, the news hook being that snow-weary Americans will need a passport to satisfy their appetite for sun, sand and sea.

Efforts by groups such as the Caribbean Tourism Organization, the Caribbean Hotel Association, ASTA and the TIA to rally widespread support for legislative changes in the WHTI have come up short.

A study commissioned by the CHA and presented by the World Travel & Tourism Council last year painted a dire scenario regarding the impact of the WHTI on the tourism-driven economies of the Caribbean.

The WTTC predicted job losses for 188,300 Caribbean workers, coupled with a $26 billion drop in visitor exports.

Several regional governments and destinations launched their own campaigns to inform potential U.S. visitors to get and carry a passport. Jamaica, for example, took the passport message, along with complimentary cups of its Blue Mountain coffee, to commuter air terminals in New York, Chicago and Washington to urge potential visitors to Jamaica to get passports.

Several hotels, hotel chains and tour operators have jumped in, too, with passport rewards programs, offering credits and discounts to guests who present new passports at check-in.

American and American Eagle, which offer more than 130 daily flights to the Caribbean in the winter season, e-mailed passport advisories and reminders to customers of record, according to a spokesman. 

Just about everyone agrees that the two-week extension to Jan. 23 made little difference, other than to guarantee that holiday travelers would make it home before the regulation took effect.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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