Havre Daily News
Montana tourism officials say new passport requirements announced this week by the U.S. Department of State will not harm the state's tourism industry. However, some Havreites may soon be thinking twice about traveling north of the border.
The new rules are a part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which will be phased in over the next three years. By 2008, all travelers entering the United States will be required to show a passport or be enrolled in a "trusted traveler" program. The initiative is the result of legislation passed by Congress in 2004.
"At this point, we don't see it having an adverse effect on travel into Montana," state Promotion Division administrator Betsy Baumgart said Thursday. "We're not overly concerned about it at this point. We're monitoring it." She added that Canadian visitors make up 4 percent to 5 percent of the state's visitors.
Gayle Fisher, executive director for the Russell Country nonprofit regional tourism organization, said she didn't think the new rules would have an adverse effect.
"It's not as if it's a non-issue, but I don't think it's going to be a big problem," Fisher said. She said the timeline for the new rules to take effect will give the industry appropriate time to react and adjust. Fisher also said she gets the impression that Canadian travelers are more apt to take international trips, which means more of them likely have passports.
She also noted that the rules are a response to security concerns.
"The world is a different place," Fisher said. "Instead of becoming alarmed ... maybe we should be saying, 'This is a great step.' There are different ways you can approach it."
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce president Denise Ladenburg echoed that sentiment.
"We have to keep in mind that, ultimately, they're just trying to do these things for our protection," Ladenburg said. She added that the new requirements might discourage local residents from heading north, but it is still too early to tell. "Some people would find the financial end of it a hardship and some might find the process a hardship."
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette agreed, saying the cost of passports might discourage residents from taking short jaunts over the border.
"Sometimes people in our communities run across the border for an afternoon, and I think that might stop," she said. "I don't know that in the long run it will create a major problem, but people might think twice before taking a quick trip across the border."
Stockman Bank president Chuck Wimmer said he is unsure of the effects the new rules would have on Havre, but said a community effort to get the Wild Horse port of entry to be open 24 hours a day is still moving forward. He said the group has new economic data to show that the proposal would benefit the local economy.
"It's kind of a slow process, but we're still working on it. We're not letting the ball drop," Wimmer said.
Under the current rules, the traveler must satisfy the examining officer of the traveler's identity and admissibility into the country, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Mike Milne said. A number of different forms of identification can be used, he said, and the new rules will streamline the process.
"From a stance of speeding up the process, it gives our officers at the border a more uniform document to look at," Milne said. "We think this program will not slow down crossing at the border. We think it will actually speed it up."
The new rules will improve security and bring the Canadian and Mexican borders up to the same requirements that are used for travelers from around the world. The requirements will take effect for all travel from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central and South American by the end of the year, followed by air and sea travel from Mexico and Canada at the end of 2006.
"We're doing this to enhance border security, bottom line," Milne said. "A passport is the most secure form of identification we have worldwide. What this Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative does is it brings the requirements that we have for the rest of the world to the Western Hemisphere."
Passports will soon become even more secure, State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said. There are plans to begin embedding digital photographs into passports.
A Canadian government spokesman said there has been a long history of reciprocity between the United States and Canada regarding documentation at the border. Glenn Bradbury, a spokesman for parliamentary secretary Dan McTeague, said there has been no decision as to whether Canada will require passports at the border.
The federal government is still working out the details of what will happen to U.S. citizens and other people who try to cross the border without a passport, Milne said. Lack of documentation at the border right now could mean delays, he added.
There are plans to expand "trusted traveler" programs such as NEXUS and FAST as well, Milne said. The programs are the result of joint agreements between the U.S. and Canadian governments to allow citizens who cross the border often and have been vetted by officials on both sides of the border to travel more quickly through checkpoints. Information and applications can be found on the Web. FAST and NEXUS can only be used at certain busy ports of entry, Milne said. Plans to expand the programs to other ports have not been ironed out.
Shannon said the number of passports issued by the government has been increasing and will likely continue to rise. There are about 62 million passports in circulation, and 8.8 million were issued in 2004, an increase over the 7.3 million issued in 2003, Shannon said.
"We know more people are getting passports," she said. "We've been able to meet the demand and we know it's going to continue to rise."
Milne said residents can comment on the new regulations by visiting www.regulations.gov.
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