A Canadian presence has always been a part of the Whatcom County economy, and easy access over the northern border has allowed for economic exchange. The implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which could require a passport to cross the border, may, however, take the “easy access” out of the economic equation.
What the impact added restrictions will have on the economy remains to be seen, but many in the local business community don’t want to find out, fearing significant economic damage.
To prevent economic injury, the local business community, led by the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, is working to raise the issue — and find a solution — with lawmakers.
Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce has been a central figure in the local business community’s campaign to find a passport alternative to satisfy the requirements of the WHTI, which will be implemented for travel from Mexico and Canada to all U.S. sea and air ports in 2007, and land border crossings beginning in 2008.
“The Whatcom County economy is far more tied to Vancouver than it is to Seattle,” said Oplinger. “Anything that creates more hassle or expense when crossing the border will hurt the local economy.”
To raise this issue with those who can affect change, Oplinger has worked with two groups; one local group and one national.
Soon after the WHTI was approved by the U.S. Congress, as part a large intelligence reform bill in 2004, Oplinger joined a coalition of chamber’s of commerce located along the northern border. The group, led by the Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit, Mich; and Bellingham, has about 70 other chambers involved in discussions on how to approach and refocus this legislation.
In October 2005, Oplinger and the coalition traveled to Washington D.C. and met with the members of the Northern Border Caucus regarding the situation. The coalition is planning another trip to the nation’s capital in February .
Oplinger and the chamber are also working with a local group here in the Pacific Northwest. Oplinger said this more loosely organized group is made up of concerned parties regarding the border legislation, such as the Port of Seattle and congressional representatives in the area.
The goal in both groups is to find an alternative secure document instead of a passport that is less expensive, more convenient to get and more readily used — or to delay implementation of the requirement if necessary.
About twenty-five percent of Americans have passports, which cost almost $100 and can take several weeks to issue.
A passport requirement wouldn’t be as much of a problem for locals as it will for out-of-town travelers, who are not familiar with regulations, said Oplinger. Tourists to the Pacific Northwest would no longer casually explore both countries in the region if crossing the border is too difficult, he said. He anticipates retail business and tourism would likely take that hardest economic hit, and that Canadian investment in this area could also decline.
Tourist spending in Whatcom County is a $360 million dollar industry, and Canadians are a crucial market state-wide, according to John Cooper, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. The area has already seen an impact, because people are confused about current border requirements, he said. “Perception is reality to many people,” said Cooper.
Both Gov. Christine Gregoire and U.S. Rep. Rick Larson, along with other politicians, are working to ensure the new regulations will improve U.S. security, but won’t cause economic harm.
Larsen said he fails to see how a passport requirement will make the border any safer when weighed against the potential economic loss that may occur, and that the business community has been voicing the same sentiments to him.
As a member of the Northern Border Caucus, Larsen said he has met twice with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, which will create the rules, to voice his concerns over the potential economic loss a poorly implemented program could cause.
According to Larsen, Congress probably won’t remove the provision from the law, but will rather focus on the option of another form of secure document — that may be more secure, but easier to obtain — than a passport.
The WHTI is also an opportunity to consolidate, or coordinate the use of, other border programs such as NEXUS, SENTRI and US-VISIT, making border crossing more streamlined, said Larsen.
“The business community and the federal government must work closely together to ensure that the regulators writing these rules have an understanding of the huge potential negative economic impact on our communities.”