Niagara Gazette

March 5, 2007

BORDER ISSUES: Securing the border

Officials tout passport plan, examine alternatives at tourism summit

By Paul Lane/lanep@gnnewspaper.com

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario — Taking out his plastic-covered birth certificate, John Nay showed what border officers have to deal with on a daily basis.

The aged document issued in Louisiana, whose seal is nearly worn away, is one of up to 8,000 different documents presented at the American/Canadian border as proof of identification.

Trying to authenticate so many documents is exactly why the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative — the law that will require a passport for entry into the United States — will be beneficial, he said.

Nay, the U.S. consul general in Toronto, spoke during a presentation on border security issues at the Binational Tourism Summit at the Sheraton Fallsview Hotel and Conference Centre.cq Despite the bad press the passport law has received, he feels it will streamline operations by simplifying the documentation process.

“We are working diligently to make it smarter, secure ... and quicker for travelers,” he said.

Under WHTI, air travelers have needed passports to enter or re-enter the United States since January, and sea and land travelers will require passports sometime between January 2008 and June 2009. Although the law was recently amended to include the possible postponement, the legislation has been passed and the change will occur, Nay said.

“The delay is not because it’s up in the air. It’s to give people time to implement the change,” he said.

If price is a concern (U.S. passports cost $97 each for those ages 16 and older), an alternative touted by many at Monday’s conference is NEXUS, a pre-approval process whereby travelers get a card after a one-time screening and get to cross the border more quickly thereafter. Still in the pilot process at Niagara Falls-area crossings, the program is slated to expand in airports across Canada and at land crossings in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, said Greg Goatbe, an official with the Canada Border Services Agency in Ottawa, Ontario.

While proudly displaying her NEXUS card, Mary Mahon Jones of the Canadian Council of Tourism Associations said improvements are needed to the system. The resident of the province of British Columbia called for a family fee program to offer discounts and the expansion renewal requirements from five years to 10 years, among other initiatives.

Another alternative being discussed is a pilot driver’s license program in Washington state and British Columbia. The idea would be to create a license with adequate personal and citizenship identification to allow the holder to use his or her license to cross the border, Goatbe said. Michigan, Ontario and the Yukon territory in northwestern Canada — which borders Alaska — are also interested in starting such a program, he said.

While the transition to passports may be definite, the questions surrounding a firm starting date and the fight by some in Congress against the move have left tourists wondering whether they can cross the border now. Allen James, a public affairs official with Niagara Falls State Park, said he’s come across numerous travelers from Ohio, Pennsylvania and other points south that have changed plans to travel to the region because of the perceived need of a passport. In addition, the time involved with getting a passport (applications take several months to process) make spontaneous vacations to the area less frequent.

“The culture in travel ... has changed,” he said.

Nay doesn’t see this as an impossible dilemma to overcome, however. More than 74 million Americans (28 percent) already own a passport, he said, with 1.1 million passport applications being received in November alone. He encouraged anyone else who crosses the border to act now to avoid the rush that will come next fall.

“The decision’s been made,” he said. “Get a passport.”

The three-day summit concludes with a series of workshops this morning.