Stringent, new laws requiring passports or ID cards when crossing the Canada-US border will hurt the Yukon tourism industry, says Tourism branch director Pierre Germain.
“Not only does it have the potential to significantly impact visitation to the Yukon in the summer from people in the lower 48 (US states), but it also has potential impact on the close relationship with our neighbouring Alaskan communities,” he said.
Passed by US Congress in 2004 and signed by President George W. Bush, the law will require all North American travellers to present official passports or equally secure substitutes by December 31, 2006 for everyone travelling into the US by air and sea and by December 31, 2007 for land border crossings.
Brought about because of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the law — known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — aims to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of the lenient border-crossing regulations that have applied to Canada and Mexico for years.
But Germain says the extra cost of obtaining documentation, like a passport, may discourage tourists from places like Skagway, Haines and Fairbanks from crossing the border.
Currently, travellers only need to show some form of state-issued identification, like a driver’s licence and a proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate, to enter, or re-enter the US.
Less than one in five Americans have passports, which cost $100 US.
Although certain types of security documentation, other than passports, will be accepted, the rules haven’t been clearly identified, said Germain.
“We already know there is confusion within both Canada and the US with regards to what is required and when it’s going to be required,” he said.
“The market needs to adjust to whatever the new regulations are going to be and without knowing what the secure identification is, it’s hard for them to be prepared quick enough.”
And, once the new rules are in place, Americans may rush to get their new documents at the same time causing a bureaucratic bottleneck, he added.
Yukon’s Tourism and Culture minister Elaine Taylor has been championing this issue on behalf of the tourism industry for months.
She lobbied Alaskan commerce commissioner William Noll, and wrote letters to legislators in Washington DC to make sure the process is as painless as possible for the tourism industry.
A new standardized format of identification is essential both for security and expediting purposes, said Marissa Maurer, US consulate officer responsible for British Columbia and the Yukon.
She was in Whitehorse earlier this month to inform Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce reps on the need for new regulations.
“The problem is that in the US you have 8,000 different entities that can issue birth certificates,” said Maurer.
“Each state and county has different formats, so how can a border guard in Skagway know what the Alabama birth certificates look like?”
Last year, more than 75,000 fraudulent documents were confiscated at border crossings and airports, she said.
But, like tourism officials, local business advocates say the new regulations will discourage would-be tourists from visiting and spending money in the territory.
US passports are just too expensive for many Americans, said Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce president Rick Karp.
“If there’s a mother and father and two kids, and they realize they’re going to have to pay $400, it’s like ‘Wow, what are we going to do? Maybe we’ll just go and visit grandpa and grandma instead of going up to Canada,’” said Karp.
“And what about American students coming up to Skagway for summer work?
“Will they come in, or will they stay there or go to Juneau instead of coming here? Who knows?”
But, so far, the new regulations are vague. The US government is working to alleviate concerns before the new rules take effect, said Maurer.
For example, it’s developing a cheaper, faster alternative to regular passports called e-passports.
The wallet-sized cards fitted with electronic chips would be scanned at border crossings to show travellers’ information and photo, she said.
“I’ve heard they will cost somewhere between $30 and $50, and, like Canadian passports, they would be good for 10 years.”
The current US passports last only five.
“There will be a period of maybe a year or two where tourism may be affected because people might not realize the new rules have gone into effect, but, in the long run, it will improve because border crossing will be so much easier and faster,” said Maurer.
Karp says even a few years of adjustment would be a serious blow to the Yukon’s tourism industry.
“(Maurer) seems to think that once it’s in place it’s going to be faster, smoother and better, but the problem is not the once it’s in place, it’s the getting it in place because there are so few Americans with passports,” said Karp.
Maurer said the regulations are still going through a draft process and couldn’t say exactly when they would be finalized.
So far, frequent-traveller-program cards, like Nexis, Fast and Sentry, will still be accepted for people who frequently cross the border, and landed immigrants can continue to use their permanent resident cards.
First nations people will not be subject to the new rule changes and will be able to pass without the added restrictions, she said.
In 2004, Canada announced plans for an e-passport, but the high-tech border card was a “very expensive venture,” and there would be no guarantee that Canada would provide it in the near future, according to recent statements by Stockwell Day, Canada’s minister of Public Safety.
Thirty-six per cent of Canadians hold passports, according to statistics from 2004-05.
The US State department is doing an economic impact study that will be published at the same time as the finalized regulations.
“To be honest, I think we’ve all come to realize that safety and security is a top priority for the US government, and we understand that, and we know that won’t change, so we’re going to have to be able to adjust to whatever documentation they identify,” said Germain.
“All we’re asking is that they please allow a significant amount of time to educate the public on it, and that the system will be in place to deliver it quickly and hopefully cheaply.”