Friday, March 26, 2004

Hawaii joins calls
to stall new passport

WASHINGTON >> The Bush administration is seeking a two-year delay in a congressional requirement that 27 countries issue computer-coded passports for travel to the United States. Hawaii tourism officials say the reprieve is necessary to keep tourism from being hurt.

Administration officials say the countries are not ready to switch to the new passports, raising concerns that the U.S. economy -- particularly the tourism industry -- could suffer serious damage if the Congress does not defer the current Oct. 26 deadline.

Affected are "visa waiver" countries -- 22 European nations plus Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. Citizens from these countries have not been required to obtain visas for travel to the United States. But as part of a post-Sept. 11 effort to enhance security, Congress required the governments of these countries to issue "biometric" passports by the fall deadline.

The special passports would include fingerprint and iris identification features, which make the documents virtually impossible to counterfeit.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge requested the delay in a letter last week to House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

Powell and Ridge said in the letter that the 27 countries would not be able to meet the deadline.

The reason is that millions of would-be U.S. visitors to the United States would have to apply for U.S. visas, overwhelming consular staffs in the affected countries.

Sensenbrenner said he has written a letter to U.S. ambassadors in each of the countries for an update on their ability to meet the deadline for biometric passports.

Particularly hard hit if there is no extension would be the U.S. tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on visitors from Great Britain, Germany and other European countries.

Hawaii heavily relies on Japanese tourists, which feeds more visitors to the state than any other foreign country.

Marsha Wienert, the state's tourism liaison, said lines at customs and immigration are already long in Hawaii.

If stricter passport requirements are prematurely enforced, Wienert said, it would be disastrous.

"To know that once you get off the plane after 12 hours and then you have to wait two hours or more," she said, "would really be a detriment to foreign travelers."

Other industry officials agree that potential tourists from affected countries could elect alternate travel sites if the deadline is not pushed back.

Powell and Ridge agree, too. "The U.S. economy would likely suffer gravely if travelers 'vote with their feet' and go elsewhere, possibly resulting in multibillion losses to our economy and reducing employment in one of our economy's most dynamic sectors," they wrote.


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