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Canada Urges US to Reconsider Passport Rule

The 9000 kilometer U.S.-Canadian border is one of the most open in the world, and citizens of both countries can cross freely without passports, but a new U.S. law would change that. Those who make a living from cross-border travel are concerned.

Without any fences or barriers, the Canada-U.S. border is the longest undefended boundary in North America. Tens of millions of people cross it every year. The travel generates over $445 billion worth of trade between the United States and Canada.

For decades, U.S. authorities have not required visiting Canadians or returning Americans to have a passport. But following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3000 people, the U.S. government rewrote the law.

After a long, and at times emotional, debate in the U.S. Congress, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, also known as the 9/11 Intelligence Bill, was signed into the law by President Bush at the end of last year.

Based on the new law, the U.S. Homeland Security and State Departments issued the Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires that, by January 1, 2008, U.S. citizens, Canadians, Mexicans, and citizens of Bermuda must present a passport or other accepted secure documents to enter or re-enter United States.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin says the plan is raising concerns north of the U.S. border.

"As you know, this is a measure, as put forth, that would apply not only to Canadians, but to Americans themselves,” he said. “It's also a measure however, that - I think we've seen news reports, in which the president himself has expressed some skepticism. But I will be talking to him about it and we have raised it."

Roughly 25 percent of Vancouver's tourism market depends on trips by American visitors, and Vancouver is the homeport for most of the summertime cruises to the U.S. state of Alaska.

Rick Antonson of Tourism Vancouver says tourism organizations across Canada are expressing concern about the initiative. He says sometimes governments and world leaders overlook the tourism industry when they make decisions relating to security or immigration.

"And the tourism industry often gets underestimated in terms of its impact, job creation, contribution to the economy, its ability to, if a place is thriving, create construction jobs - building a convention center, building new hotels, building new restaurants, building new visitors attractions… While being respectful of the security needs, we don't want to see this damage the United State's tourism industry nor Canada's," he said.

Darcy Rezac, Managing Director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, says many of his organization's members are concerned about the impact that passport requirements may have on business in general. He says the organization will be lobbying the Bush administration not to implement the plan.

“We have 5000 members, and a number of them have raised this with us as an area of concern,” he noted. “The Vancouver Board of Trade has a Canada-US relations committee, we're members of the United States Chamber of Commerce and as we do our assessment of the impact of this, we will be going to the Chamber and asking them to raise this concern on our behalf with the US government.”

But not everyone dislikes the new passport rule. Jim Phillips, president of the Canadian-American Border Trade Alliance, thinks overall that the new passport requirements are good because it might encourage both Canadians and Americans to apply for a NEXUS pass, a document that allows for expedited crossings along the Canadian-American land border. In effect, this would pre-screen visitors traveling to the United States and eliminate the need for a border inspection.

With 90 percent of Canada's population living within 200 kilometer of the American border, however, Mr. Phillips sees problems for those wanting to make unplanned visits south.

"The impact on the spur-of-the-moment traveler -- 'I'm going to run over and have a pizza, we're going to have a hockey tournament cross-border, my mother is visiting and she lives in the interior of the country and doesn't have a passport' -- that is the unintended consequence, because that person would not be able to cross the border," he explained.

Another obstacle facing the change is that, according to Canadian tourism industry figures, less than a quarter of Americans have passports, while just 40 percent of Canadians do.

President Bush told a gathering in Washington recently there might be better ways to allow the legal flow of cross border traffic and ordered a review of the passport requirements. He says other forms of identification, such as fingerprint scans, might be considered.