The American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) Senior Vice President of Legal and Industry Affairs, Paul Ruden, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotic Affairs on the travel industry’s position regarding the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). ASTA provided input and concerns on behalf of the American Bus Association, the Interactive Travel Services Association, the International Council of Cruise Lines, the National Tour Association, the Student & Youth Travel Association and the Travel Industry Association of America.
“We first want to make absolutely clear that the retail travel industry, and our related industries, concur fully with the need for improved security at all U.S. borders and other points of entry,” Ruden testified. “At the same time, it is important that the government have regard for the effects that enhanced security measures may have on the willingness of people to travel domestically and overseas. Sustaining consumer confidence to travel freely in a post-Sept. 11 world is critical to the survival and growth of our industry, the travel suppliers whose services we sell and the national economy whose vitality depends upon a thriving travel and transportation industry.
“The goal should be a tourism policy that allows U.S. citizens to travel abroad and foreign citizens to visit our country, free of unreasonable restrictions and pre-conditions that deter law abiding people from traveling. A careful balancing between security and tourism concerns should be a key part of that policy,” Ruden added.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, announced April 5 by the Departments of State (DOS) and Homeland Security (DHS), will require all citizens of the United States, Canada, Bermuda and Mexico to have a passport or other accepted secure document to enter or re-enter the United States by Jan. 1, 2008.
ASTA made five specific recommendations to DHS and DOS with respect to moving the program forward in a way that sustains rather than impairs the travel and tourism industry. Among them were to:
* Withdraw the DHS and DOS announcement regarding WHTI insofar as it provides for a Dec. 31, 2005, implementation.
* Seek development of a single new travel instrument that accomplishes the security requirements of identification and entry-exit tracking but does not provide for consular or other government services outside the United States that we have been told are the largest drivers of passport costs.
* Consider linking WHTI to the evolution of the Registered Traveler program, so that more travelers would have the option to qualify in advance and achieve rapid border processing without the need for a passport.
* Consider adoption of commercially tested and proven methods of influencing consumer behavior by providing pricing incentives for early purchases, group purchases (family applications submitted together), student and senior discounts, to name a few.
* Do not attempt to implement WHTI using passports as the core document less than one year after a final rule, whatever its content, is adopted.