Canada, Mexico soon will seem farther away

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When you live in Buffalo, going to Canada doesn’t seem like foreign travel. It’s more like crossing state lines.

Ryan Ennis and her friends grab their driver’s licenses and go every couple of months to enjoy the nightclubs and restaurants across the border. But Ennis doesn’t think she’ll go once Americans need passports to re-enter the country. She doesn’t want to spend her waitress salary on a passport that she has never needed before.

“I wouldn’t get it,” Ennis says. “I just think it’s ridiculous.”

Requirements announced Tuesday by the State Department prompted mixed reactions from Americans who will need passports by 2008 to re-enter the USA from Canada, Mexico, Panama, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The government says the move is part of an effort to tighten border security since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many who live along the country’s northern and southern borders bemoaned the costs and hassle of having to get a document they’ve never had a need for. Others deplored the tightening of friendly borders and predicted longer lines at crossings.

Some consumer advocates said the government is playing “Big Brother” and trying to track the comings and goings of Americans who buy prescription drugs in Mexico and Canada. And the travel industry is worried that it could discourage tourism.

Fears from Detroit to El Paso

More than two-thirds of Americans have never had a passport. For many, driving across the border to Canada or Mexico is the extent of their travels abroad. And for those who live in states that border other countries, a jaunt across for dinner, shopping or a quick getaway has never required more than a driver’s license or birth certificate.

That’s why the owners of Tunnel Bar-B-Q in Windsor, Ontario, a popular lunch spot for white- and blue-collar workers from Detroit, are worried. Business had been slipping since the terrorist attacks, and the owners fear that moves to tighten the border could cut into business even more.

“We have people who don’t come by for lunch anymore — they just order cases of barbecue sauce and ask me to ship it to Dearborn,” says Geralynn Petropolous, whose parents own the restaurant. Dearborn, Mich., is 12 miles away.

Alex Casillas, general manager of the Trolley Co. in El Paso, isn’t happy, either. The service takes tourists shopping in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Most customers are casual travelers who decide on a foray into Mexico at the last minute, he says. The trolleys bus 400 to 1,000 people a week, depending on the time of year. “If they don’t have a passport or if they don’t bring it, they’ll probably cancel their visit to Mexico,” Casillas says.

But business travelers seem largely unfazed. Those who travel frequently and tend to fly to other countries are accustomed to the stricter demands for documentation at airport checkpoints. Many have taken extra precautions since the terrorist attacks.

“I’ve been carrying my passport all along,” says Ginny Scahill, a special-events and campaign consultant who lives in Buffalo and owns a beach house in Fort Erie, Ontario. “I just make it a point to keep it with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m going to be required to take it into Iowa eventually.”

The new requirement won’t affect her too much, she says, but she does have a lot of visitors to the beach house who have young children. “Are we going to be taking 12-month-old babies to AAA to be getting their passports? That’s ridiculous,” Scahill says.

‘Another cost to pay’

Jamie Court calls it downright sinister. The president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a consumer watchdog group based in Santa Monica, Calif., has organized “Rx Express” trips to take seniors and patients to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs.

“It seems to me that this is something that’s meant to deter travelers from going to Canada to buy prescription drugs every 90 days,” he says.

All the years that Jerry Scharf has crossed the Canadian border to go to the racetracks or take his sons to hockey games, he has never felt the need to get a passport for himself or his two boys. “It was just like going from one county to another, except for a casual inspection,” says Scharf, owner of Scharf’s Schiller Park Restaurant in Buffalo, 10 minutes from the Peace Bridge to Canada. “I understand the reasoning behind it, but it’s always been such a friendly border,” he says.

His oldest son, Jeff, turns 21 in May and wants to go to Toronto for the weekend with his buddies. Now, Scharf says everyone in the family better get a passport. At $97 each, “that’s another cost we’re mandated to pay.”

Snowbird Cecelia Bustamontes, 65, who makes her home in Columbus, N.M., six months a year, was more positive. “Having to show a passport is fine with me. I cross frequently into Mexico,” she said. “I’ll be the devil’s advocate on this issue. If someone can’t obtain a passport, hey, I don’t want them here.”

But Paul Ruden of the American Society of Travel Agents says every obstacle has an effect on travel. “We want the best security we can have,” he says. “What we don’t want is so much security that nobody wants to go anywhere.”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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