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Tourism drought expected
U.S. passport restrictions blamed
New restrictive passport requirements and the steep decline in U.S. visitors to this province were among the hottest topics at the B.C. Tourism Industry Conference.
Speaking in Victoria last week at a seminar examining ways for the industry to revitalize the flagging U.S. market, Council of Tourism Associations CEO Mary Mahon Jones noted that the number of U.S. visitors to B.C. has dropped by more than 16 per cent in the last five years.
If current estimates hold up, there will be 14 million fewer trips from the U.S. to Canada 2005 to 2010, representing a revenue loss to the industry of about $3.6 billion, Mahon Jones said.
“We get it about the passport, but what’s going to give us our edge back?” she said.
Among the solutions bandied about was increased use of the NEXUS card, a VIP pass that gives priority border clearance to low-risk passengers.
To obtain a Nexus card, a travller must fill out an application, pay a $50 fee, go through an interview and be subjected to a background check. The applicant is then fingerprinted and subjected to an electronic eye scan that can be recognized by computers. The program is only for citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. or Canada and Nexus cards are only granted to applicants with no criminal record.
Brian Flegel, Canadian Border Services Agency director at Vancouver Airport, said about 119,000 Canadians and Americans have signed up.
“Nexus membership is the only alternative to a passport,” Flegel said. “It’s here, it’s now and it works.”
But it wasn’t all bad news for the industry, as the Bush administration announced Thursday that Canadian and American children will be exempt from rules requiring travellers at all land crossings to carry a passport.
Two hours earlier at a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Union Club, U.S. consul general Lewis Lukens confirmed his government’s move to lift the passport requirement for Canadian and American children under age 16. The announcement was good news for organizers of the annual Victoria Day Parade, a signature attraction for marching bands from Washington State high schools.
“Our effort shows we are listening to the public on this,” Lukens said, adding the U.S. is trying to tighten border security “in a way that doesn’t impede travel and tourism.”
Lukens also said the U.S. is developing the wallet-sized PASSport card containing security features that will speed up checks at the ports of entry, and provide greater convenience for frequent border-crossers.
The cards are expected to be ready in time for the new land and sea requirements next year.
While only 73 million of the United States’ 300 million citizens have passports, that number is growing by 300,000 to 360,000 a week. U.S. visitors traditionally make up about 70 per cent of overnight visitors to B.C.
In thanking Lukens for his presentation, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Bruce Carter suggested that border security can be a double-edged sword for business and tourism.
“We know that security and safety is a precursor to trade. We just hope it doesn’t become a barrier to trade,” he said.