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Fearing for the island jaunt

A looming U.S. passport rule threatens to harm tourism-dependent Caribbean economies.

November 14, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

NASSAU, BAHAMAS — "Life Needs the Caribbean. You Need a Passport."

That advertising slogan, posted at airports throughout the Caribbean, has this tourism-dependent area bracing for a hurricane-force blow.

For decades, U.S. citizens have escaped winter's ravages for the white-sand beaches on a whim. When reentering the United States, they have needed to show only a driver's license or birth certificate. But post-9/11 security concerns led Congress to pass a law requiring travelers entering the country by air or sea to carry passports. That provision takes effect Jan. 8. The law also calls for people who cross by land from Canada and Mexico to show passports beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

Hotels, airlines, restaurants and tour operators across the region were forecasting $2.6 billion in lost revenue and massive layoffs when the U.S. government last month added what Caribbean nations considered insult to injury. Under pressure from the primarily U.S.-based cruise ship industry, Washington granted a reprieve from the passport requirement until June 2009 for arrivals by land and sea.

The moves have triggered cries of injustice among those catering to air travelers .

"The U.S. Congress has effectively laid off 188,300 Caribbean workers" in the region's $21-billion tourism industry, World Travel & Tourism Council President Jean-Claude Baumgarten said, citing a study last year by the council and the Caribbean Hotel Assn. on the passport requirement.

The study projected the harshest consequences for the Bahamas and Jamaica, where U.S. visitors account for 87% and 73%, respectively, of the tourism market.

Caribbean Tourism Organization chief Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace compared the effect on the islands to "a Category 6 hurricane."

With 80% of U.S. visitors to Jamaica arriving without passports, the Jamaican tourist board has launched an education campaign about the new law. Tourism marketers plan to take their message -- and complimentary cups of the country's famous Blue Mountain coffee -- to commuter terminals in New York, Chicago and Washington beginning Nov. 15 to urge potential visitors to Jamaica to get passports.

According to the tourism council study, Jamaica stands to lose more than half of its $2-billion annual tourism revenue and 114,000 tourism-related jobs unless its U.S. visitors react quickly to the new Department of Homeland Security requirement. First-time applicants typically must wait eight weeks for a passport, unless they add a $60 expedited-service fee to the standard charge of $97 for an adult or $82 for a child.

To mitigate the new costs, some Jamaican hotels have created a "Passport to Rewards" program, offering a $97 credit redeemable for spa treatments, golf green fees, room upgrades and other goodies for adult guests who can show Jamaica is the first stamp in their new passports.

One region-wide resort chain has embraced the impending change to make its vacation packages truly all-inclusive.

"Our message to our guests is clear: 'Go out and get your passports and SuperClubs will pay for it,' " said John Issa, executive chairman of the company, which has 10 resorts in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Curacao and the Dominican Republic.

The effect of the law on the Caribbean's dominant industry is expected to vary from island to island, with little disruption expected in places such as French-speaking Martinique and Cuba, the latter largely off-limits to U.S. citizens, thanks to Washington's economic embargo of the island. But the tourism council projects revenue could fall $1.13 billion for Jamaica, $485 million for the Dominican Republic and $446 million for the Bahamas.

High-end destinations such as Turks and Caicos, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis are expected to weather the passport change better than islands catering to the budget-minded.

"Antigua is not a destination that typically attracts the first-time traveler. We're not an impulse destination," said Derede Samuel-Whitlock, U.S. director of tourism for Antigua and Barbuda.

She recently acquired passports for her U.S.-born children and deemed the process speedier and more efficient than she had expected, though not cheap at nearly $300 for the 3-year-old twins.

Even at upscale hotels like Antigua's Hawksbill by Rex Resort, innkeepers worry that the cost of acquiring passports for a whole family might discourage some travelers.

"Only 27% of Americans have passports -- that's worrying," said Hawksbill manager Richard Michelin, adding that occupancy at his resort had just begun to bounce back after a major falloff following the 9/11 attacks that made the hotel's U.S. clientele fearful of air travel.

Airlines serving the Caribbean also stand to lose business but have taken the passport issue in stride, viewing it as just the latest in an ever-changing stream of security measures to affect air travel since 9/11.

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