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
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.
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.
are U.S. citizens returning from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin
Islands, both U.S. territories.
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.
When asked about
WHTI, Terry McCabe of Altour International, Fair Lawn, N.J., just
"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
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
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
"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.
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."
"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."
senior advisor on the WHTI for the State Dept., denied that
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
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
In addition, a
new megacenter for producing passports will open in Arkansas in
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.
take six to eight weeks to process, though Staeben said the
turnaround time right now is about four weeks.
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
"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
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
He advocated that
the government enact "a grace period when the rule goes into effect
on Jan. 23."
State Dept. didn't call it that, Staeben said, "We are working out
procedures for emergencies. We will not strand any American citizen
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.
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
predicted job losses for 188,300 Caribbean workers, coupled with a
$26 billion drop in visitor exports.
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
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 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.
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].