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Tourism hurt by passport policy

Jul 26, 2009

John King, a used- and rare-book dealer in downtown Detroit, loves piling friends in his car and taking off for a wonderful Chinese or Italian meal in Windsor.

That's just a short ride down the street and through the tunnel under the Detroit River. But these days, he seldom goes there.

Too often, one of his passengers has forgotten their passport, or, like most Americans, doesn't have one at all. Ever since June 1, Americans can get into Canada without a passport -- but if they do, they won't be allowed back home.

"You'd think we were all terrorists, y'know. All I want is moo-shu pork. It's nuts," King says.

Nuts or not, the new policy is severely hurting tourism and the economy in both Ontario and Michigan. Traffic through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel, the main tourist artery, was off 22.5 percent last month compared to the previous year.

Canadian casinos and wineries all report falloffs worse than the recession economy would indicate. Attendance at Stratford and the Shaw Festival are down.

All this is thanks to something called WHTI, short for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. And what it's done to tourism is nothing compared to what it has done to trade.

Canada is, by far, the United States' biggest trading partner. More of that trade goes across the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit than at any other location. But trade is way down, too.

When times are "normal," about $1.6 billion in trade crosses the border every day. According to the Windsor Star newspaper, two-nation trade in January was 31 percent less than the year before.

What is clear is that commerce between the nations has become much more of a hassle. Truckers often face long and unpredictable waits. At one point, the government of Windsor put portable toilets on some residents' lawns whose homes were on streets approaching the Ambassador Bridge.

Today, there are far more inspections of cargo and intense questioning of truckers, and border crossings have slowed to a crawl.

That has caused concern among business leaders. Last week, the U.S. and Canadian Chambers of Commerce issued a joint report, "Finding the Balance: Shared Border of the Future," calling on both governments to make trade and tourism flow more effective.

The report noted that 300,000 people cross the border each day, and said 10 million jobs depend on it -- seven million of them in the United States. It concludes by saying that this is the ideal time for reform, since changes are easier when trade is down.

"As our economies begin to recover, the structural problems at the border will result in more excessive delays," it concludes.

And more lost money in a state that needs every last dime.

Tourism hurt by passport policy
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