Janet Silvera, Senior Tourism Writer
Tourism interests want the United States to further relax requirement for visas to enter countries.
Reeling from a marked decrease in United States visitors to the region, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) wants an extension to the temporary relaxation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) announced by the American government last week.
Representing 32 Caribbean countries, the organisation, headed mainly by tourism ministers, is urging a full waiver of these requirements until July 2009, when the rules are scheduled to come into effect for cruise passengers travelling into the region.
At the close of the week-long Caribbean Week celebrations in New York City on Friday, the CTO ministers called on their heads of governments to broach the proposal at the CARICOM 20/20 Vision meeting with President George Bush in Washington, D.C., this Wednesday.While applauding the United States government on its decision to ease the requirement which went into effect after January 23, 2007, and which called for all U.S. citizens to have a passport in order to return to the country following travel overseas by air, CTO chairman and St. Lucia’s Tourism Minister, Senator Allen Chastanet, said, “The evidence is now overwhelming that tourism and commerce in the Caribbean region have suffered considerably as a result of the WHTI passport rules.”
A prediction by the United States’ own study by Customs and Border Protection in August 2006, as well as a study by the World Travel and Tourism Council, that this would have been the effect, the CTO chairman warned that by excluding the Caribbean from further delay in its implementation, consequences would be severe.
“All we are asking is that five minutes of the meeting covers tourism, which is not on the agenda.”
Already, reports out of Jamaica and St. Lucia show double-digit reductions in visitor arrivals out of the United States for the first four months of 2007, with the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), Puerto Rico, Barbados and the Dominican Republic figures down, between -9 and -3.5 per cent, respectively.
“These figures drive home the fact that the WHTI cancelled upward movement that we saw in other markets,” states Arley Sobers, CTO’s director of information management and research, who added that the region’s European and Canadian business was on the upswing.
The CTO also notes that the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has recognised the overwhelming impact the passport delay is having on the economies of the affected countries, and voted on Thursday night to delay passport requirements for U.S. travellers entering the country by land or sea from Canada and Mexico by 18 months to June 1, 2009, due to the huge backlog in issuing new U.S. passports.
In addition, there remains a number of issues that need to be resolved, including clarification on documents that will be acceptable to airlines and visited countries, as well as for re-entry into the U.S. by air passengers and the confusion that will ensue from different sets of rules.
In the meantime, the Board of Directors of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation has recommended to Caribbean governments that ALL Caribbean countries accept the same documents that the airlines accept for adults and children under the age of 16 for entry purposes.
The CTO’s call is fully endorsed by the Caribbean Hotel Association.