Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism industry may see some relief from the effects of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative later this year, when a low cost passport card system is implemented in the United States.
Last week, the US State Department approved the technology for issuing passport cards which US citizens can use when travelling between the US and the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda.
Currently, the US government is expected to limit the use of passport cards to sea and land travel and therefore only the cruise industry will see immediate impact.
The State Department is to begin accepting applications for the new passport cards shortly, and expects to begin issuing the passport cards in April or May.
The passport requirement is linked to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which was mandated by the US Congress in 2004 to strengthen border security, prevent entry of terrorists and reduce use of fraudulent documents. Its requirements for air travel took effect on 23 Jan., 2007.
The vast majority of US citizens do not hold passports and the passport requirement was protested by the governments of the tourism dependent countries in the Caribbean and other regional tourism stakeholders.
It was argued that this would sharply cut down impulse travel. The argument was also made that the expense and inconvenience associated with obtaining a passport would deter many potential tourists.
American adults pay US$97 to obtain passports, something that Caribbean tourism officials, including Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister of Tourism Harold Lovell identified as a potential deterrent to tourists wishing to travel to the region after the travel initiative was implemented
The cost of the passport card is expected to be approximately half the cost of a regular US passport, and could help alleviate those concerns.
The impact of the passport card on the local and regional tourism industry is also likely to depend, in part, on the speed with which applications for the card can be processed.
Last week, the US government postponed the travel initiative’s requirement that cruise travellers returning from the Caribbean also have passports from this month, in light of the backlog it faces in processing new passports.
The full passport/passport card requirements for the land and sea phase of the travel initiative are expected to go into effect later this year, at a date to be determined.
Meanwhile, there have been widespread concerns raised in the US about the technology involved in the passport cards, which would allow the cards to be read from up to 20 feet away.
Privacy advocates in the US are concerned that information on the cards might not be sufficiently protected.
The State Department, however, has said that protections will be built into the card and that its chip will not contain biographical information.