It’s Still Business as Usual at the Canada-U.S. Border

OTTAWA, March 23 /PRNewswire/ — With upcoming U.S. passport requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) already having a deterrent effect on travel between Canada and the United States, the tourism industry on both sides of the border wants to clear up the confusion and get more people travelling again.

The new rules requiring all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to present a passport or acceptable alternative when entering the United States do not take effect until December 31, 2007 for land border crossings (December 31, 2006 is the implementation date for air and sea travel). But anxiety about not having the proper documentation is making many people think twice about driving across the border – and prompting some to stay home.

Canada’s land border duty-free stores are on the front lines of the U.S. passport issue, literally and figuratively. They have been among the first to notice a decline in border traffic. In particular, they have seen a drop in the number of American visitors – drawn by exceptional quality at exceptional savings made even more substantial by a favourable exchange rate – who traditionally make up a large part of their customer base.

“Since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was announced, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what is happening at Canada-U.S. border crossings, and we’ve seen a significant drop in sales and border traffic overall,” says Cam Bissonnette, General Manager of Osoyoos/Kingsgate Duty Free Shops. “My staff is telling me that many of our customers think they will be allowed to cross the border only if they have a passport in their hands as of January 1, 2007, which obviously is not the case.”

Widespread reporting of sometimes inaccurate information about the WHTI has contributed to misconceptions such as these that have the entire tourism industry worried. Businesses and industry groups on both sides of the Canada- U.S. border are joining together to address the issue. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) is leading a binational Passport Coalition that is seeking to mitigate the effects of the new rules. “Because the rules implement legislation passed by the U.S. Congress, it’s unlikely their implementation can be delayed,” notes TIAC President and CEO Randy Williams. “In any case, doing so would simply prolong the confusion and uncertainty that are currently keeping some people away from the Canada-U.S. border. To some extent, the damage has already been done.”

The industry is calling for a single implementation date of January 1, 2008, for all modes of travel, the joint development by the U.S. and Canada of easy-to-obtain and affordable passport substitutes, effective border management plans, and extensive public information and awareness campaigns.

“The U.S. passport issue has already decreased reciprocal tourism trade between our two countries,” adds Chuck Loewen, General Manager of Peace Bridge Duty Free and Vice President of the Frontier Duty Free Association (FDFA), which represents the 35 stores and their 250-plus suppliers. “And this isn’t just affecting our industry’s sales and revenues, but hitting the pocketbooks of our customers.” Those stores offer luxury items from all over the world at prices representing savings of more than 50%, in some cases, compared to traditional retail stores.

For its part, the FDFA has begun a grassroots campaign to educate the duty-free stores’ American and Canadian customers about what identification they need to cross the border now and in the future, and encourage them to obtain passports. Operators and employees are handing out U.S. and Canadian passport applications to interested customers, and informing them about application procedures. “We want to ensure that our customers have the ability to travel as they wish, whether it be a planned trip or a spontaneous decision to get up and go,” says FDFA Executive Director Laurie Karson.

In the meantime, the tourism industry is reminding Americans and Canadians that they can still get across the Canada-U.S. border with a birth certificate and photo driver’s license. “Essentially, what it boils down to is business as usual,” Mr. Bissonette points out. “There are no lineups paralyzing traffic flows, and customs officers are asking for the same forms of identification that they have always requested.”

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