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US passport requirement - Tourism Minister optimistic about a diplomatic solution

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Friday, October 6, 2006 -  Saint Lucia’s Tourism Minister Philip J. Pierre says he is optimistic that the Caribbean will be able to convince the United States to opt for a diplomatic solution to the problems that can be created by its most recent regulations requiring Americans returning home by air from the Caribbean to have passports in thee months time.

Last Friday (September 29), the US Congress approved a further postponement in relation to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which requires US citizens to have passports when travelling to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Canada and Mexico.

The WHTI implementation date of 8th January 2007 has now effectively been postponed to as late as 1 June 2009 for US citizens traveling within the region by land and sea.

An exact date has not been announced, but the US Congress has agreed to relax the January 2007 implementation date allowing for implementation to occur as late as June 2009.

While the postponement defers the passport requirement for travel by land and sea, the provisions of the amendment to the Law allowing the deferral of the implementation date are silent on the important aspect of air travel, which appears to be unaffected by the recent amendment.

But the announcement from Washington evoked loud and immediate response from the Caribbean’s tourism sector.
Almost in unison, immediately after the US congress’ vote, the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourist Organisation (CTO) and the Puerto Rico-based Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) said the region would reel from the US Congress vote Monday to amend the WHTI in favour of Mexico, Canada and cruise shipping companies, over airline passengers going to the Caribbean.

The CTO described the American vote as being akin to "a category 6 hurricane" for the region, while the CHA warned affected countries to brace for "a genuine economic and social upheaval, caused by the inevitable shift in travel by US citizens".

The US government amendment delays the implementation of the new passport requirements until June 1, 2009 for land crossings at the Mexican and Canadian borders and for cruise passengers coming to the US from the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada or Bermuda.

But the regulations still required all US citizens travelling by air to these regions to have a passport by January 8, 2007, thus causing the stir in regional tourism circles.

It came as part of the Homeland Security Department's requirement that all US citizens returning to the United States have passports, with the deadline for enforcement being January 8, 2007.

But regional tourism interests have been expressing fear there will possibly be a sting in the tail, specifically a huge drop in American visitors, who, the analysts say, can't bother to get passports to travel by air and would find it much less hassling to take a cruise vacation.

Saint Lucia Tourism Minister, like his regional counterparts, is “greatly concerned” about the potential impact of the latest measure.

Speaking here before leaving for an OECS Tourism Ministers meeting in Puerto Rico, Mr. Pierre acknowledged that the regulations, if they remained, “will deal a severe blow to our economic structure, as was the case with bananas.”

But he said he also counted on the ability of the Caribbean’s Governments to convince the Americans of how bad that could be.

“I have confidence that we can sit at the table with the Americans, speak to them, and they will understand, and this whole matter will be handled and settled diplomatically,” he said.

Jamaican hotel magnate Gordon Butch Stewart, Saint Lucian hotelier Allen Chastanet and Saint Lucia’s extra-parliamentary opposition Leader Sir John Compton have all suggested the recent American amendment could be a backlash against the region for its support for Venezuela’s bid to get a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But sources close to the CARICOM governments that have been taking issue with that premise.

One CARICOM diplomat indicated that “support for Venezuela point out that the US had made its mind up and announced steps in that regard long before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed the UN General Assembly at the end of last month.”

Sir John said that Saint Lucia’s “interests” lie with America and urged that the CARICOM governments “rethink their decision” to support Venezuela.

However, diplomatic sources here say Sir John is inviting the Caribbean to take sides between the US and Venezuela in the current wear of words between Caracas and Washington.

Said one such diplomat based in Castries: “The Guatemalans are claiming Belize and the Venezuelans have promised that they will not use their place on the Security Council to press their claims on Guyana and the CARICOM states seem happy with that.

“It’s therefore a matter of how they can assure and reassure Washington that they are still friends who are getting a deal they can’t refuse for a commodity they cannot afford.”

“Really, I can’t see America opposing that, unless it can offer the Caribbean a better deal,” he said.

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