A change in rules covering documents required for air travelers to Canada, Mexico and Bermuda is causing confusion , and lost business , for the tourist industry in Baja California.
“A number of hotels have had cancellations from people who called and said they’ve delayed their trips because they didn’t want to go down without the necessary documents,” said Ron Raposa, public relations representative for the Rosarito Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The change, which takes effect Jan. 23, affects only air travelers, not those visiting via land or sea crossings.
The new passport rule was mandated by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, new federal regulations that closely follow the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The intent is to better secure the border and implement a standard system for entry back into the United States.
The first phase, handled by the Department of Homeland Security, requires air travelers who are U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to carry a passport.
Second Phase Delayed
The second phase applies to travelers returning by land or sea to carry either a passport or passport card. Originally this phase was to take effect in January 2008, but officials have delayed implementation until June 2009.
Previously, U.S. citizens traveling to Bermuda, Canada or Mexico did not have to carry a passport or special documents.
The looming deadline on air travel has discouraged some travelers from going into Mexico, especially potential buyers of condominiums under construction around Rosarito Beach and Ensenada, said a key resort official.
“There’s been a drop-off, and mostly it’s based on this confusion,” said Gabriel Robles, president of the Resort Developers Association of Baja California. “People don’t know if they need a passport and in most cases, they just don’t go.”
The travel industry has been aware of the changes regarding passports and has been letting customers know about it, but many recreational travelers are still unaware, said John Cruse, vice president of corporate travel for Balboa Travel, the area’s largest travel agency.
“The only impact we’ve seen is that there’s been a lot more questions about the policy,” Cruse said. “Most corporate travelers already have a passport.
“We started advising people about the changes about six to nine months ago, and have been telling them through our agents about it. We are also putting the requirement on every single one of the itineraries that we send out, both on domestic and international flights,” Cruse said.
The rule could be problematic for travelers who decide on the spur of the moment to do a weekend jaunt to Cabo San Lucas or Cancun in Mexico.
“It’s going to happen where people are caught off guard, and they need to get a passport and may not have time to get it,” Cruse said.
To accommodate the surge in passport applications, the U.S. Postal Service has increased the number of application offices in the San Diego district to 120 from 14. The San Diego postal district includes Imperial, Inyo and most of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
There are currently 69 locations within San Diego County.
Mike Cannone, USPS spokesman, said applications for passports in this district have increased 375 percent in 2004 over the number issued in 2003. In 2004, there were 94,647 passports issued. Last year, the number jumped to 167,890.
The basic cost for a passport is $97. Generally, the process takes six weeks, but can be shortened to two weeks by paying an additional $89.
Travelers who cannot wait two weeks can get a passport on the same day by waiting in line in Los Angeles at a special application office. Applicants must show proof that their overseas travel is less than two weeks away. The cost is $127.
Mexican and U.S. tourist officials say they are worried what impact the new passport rule will have on casual, day trips south of the border.
“On paper this sounds like a great idea, but when you look at the reality of it, it may not be so great,” said Angelika Villagrana, spokeswoman for the San Diego Alliance for Border Efficiency, comprised of businesses and business organizations, as well as local cities concerned about delays encountered in crossing the border. The group worries about how the passport rule could worsen an already serious logjam at both the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings.
“How are you going to move people (across the border) if you don’t have the people and the technology in place?” Villagrana asked.
Because of lobbying efforts by the alliance and other business groups, U.S. officials pushed ahead the date to implement the passport requirement to June 2009.
Raposa said because of the confusion about the new rules, the Baja State Secretariat of Tourism is planning an educational campaign aimed at the Southern California region, informing would-be visitors that passports aren’t required for those driving into Mexico.
The big concern for many resorts, hotels and businesses in Baja is that many visitors who come to San Diego for a few days and incorporate a day trip to Tijuana will no longer do so because they don’t have a passport.
“The great majority of the visitors who go to Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo and Ensenada probably don’t have a passport,” Robles said. “By telling them they will have to have to get one is basically killing the business.”
Raposa said business groups support improved security at the borders, but want the program implemented so as not to disrupt travel and commerce.
“We understand this is being done for better border security, but you want it to be done in a way that makes it clear the we aren’t damaging the travel and trade between the countries as well,” he said.