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Canadians brace for passport rules

Starting Tuesday, air passengers into the U.S. will need the document.

January 20, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Canadians are scrambling to get passports before new U.S. rules go into effect Tuesday requiring all air travelers coming into the United States from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to carry one. Tourism officials here worry that the restrictions will deter Americans from coming north.

The rules, designed to keep closer track of the millions of people who cross U.S. borders, were recommended by the Sept. 11 commission and mandated by Congress in 2004. They were supposed to take effect Jan. 1, but U.S. officials postponed their implementation until Jan. 23 to avoid disrupting holiday travel.

Travelers coming into the U.S. by land or sea will not need a passport until January 2008 and can still enter using a birth certificate, driver's license or border crossing card that shows citizenship. But beginning Tuesday, airline passengers coming into the U.S. will have to produce a passport. Exceptions to the rules are those traveling between Canada and the U.S. for work who were issued special cards, merchant mariners with Coast Guard documents and permanent residents with "green cards."

Officials expect some glitches at first. "People will still be showing up with sorry stories and no passports, I guarantee you," said a Canadian customs official at the Toronto airport.

In December, there was a 31% increase in passport applications compared with the previous year, said Francine Charbonneau, a spokeswoman for Passport Canada. The department has added an extra shift at print centers to get passports out quickly.

So far this year, 96% of travelers from Canada have used passports, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say. The majority were traveling on business.

"Anything that gets me through customs faster I'll do," said Brett Nelson, a Canadian engineering and sales manager who travels twice a month to the U.S. He has been using his passport for about a year, since a border official said the U.S. preferred it. But Nelson said he doesn't agree with the restriction.

"It's remnant paranoia from 9/11," he said. "They're still afraid of people hijacking an airplane. But you can still drive across the border with a truck bomb as long as you have a driver's license."

Canadian tourism officials worry that the new rules will give Americans another reason to go somewhere else. The country's $50-billion tourism industry has seen visits by U.S. travelers drop 28% over the last five years, especially as the Canadian dollar has grown stronger.

The staggered implementation of the rules -- for air travel this year, for land and sea next year -- is also causing uncertainty.

"It's the confusion over the requirements that is creating the biggest problem," said Randy Williams, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Assn. of Canada.

Only 40% of Americans have passports, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

Farley, The Times' United Nations Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Canada.

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