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Passport agency faces renewal rush

Fifth anniversary of U.S. entry law behind increase in applicants

A surge in Canadian passport applications five years ago that was sparked by changes to American law is repeating itself as the travel documents run out.

Introduction of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the United States in 2007 resulted in Canadians lining up around Passport Canada offices across the country.

The law requires travellers to present a valid passport or other secure document when entering the U.S. This year, travellers who lined up for passports in 2007 have to do so again to renew their fiveyear passports.

Passport Canada prepared for an expected onslaught this year by expanding its seasonal workforce and promoting online passport application forms to save time and cut down on errors. The agency said its offices across the country have received more than 1.9 million applications since April - up 300,000 from the same time last year.

Passport Canada noted that, in anticipation of summer travel, January and February this year were the two busiest months in its history, when more than one million applications were received.

In Victoria, its Bay Centre office has received 27,500 applications since April 1, an increase of about 5,000 compared with the same period in 2011.

Passport officials said the volumes have been as busy as expected, though they have not matched the scenes in 2007 when people slept on the street or paid people to hold their places in line in order to drop off their applications.

What doesn't appear to have changed much is the turmoil the passport requirement - which also applies to American citizens entering the U.S. - created in terms of visitation.

"The passport requirement has had a dramatic impact on our business, and that's probably true in the larger tourism sense as well as transportation," said Ryan Malane, director of marketing for Black Ball Ferry Line, which operates the Coho ferry between Victoria and Port Angeles.

"Passports are still an uphill battle [in the U.S.] as 34 per cent of Americans hold a passport. That's a record number, but it still narrows the potential traveller pool for a visit to Victoria."

Malane said there hasn't been much of a turnaround since the initial hit when passport confusion was introduced in 2007.

"Every day, we still get questions about what travel documents people need to come to Canada," he said.

Washington state has seen some take-up of an enhanced driver's licence program. Malane said the state has issued hundreds of thousands of the enhanced documents that allow passage across the border.

According to Darrell Bryan, general manager of Clipper Navigation which runs the Victoria Clipper between Victoria and Seattle, the U.S. State Department and Homeland Security has done a good job getting the word out that passports or enhanced documents are needed to travel outside the U.S.

Bryan, who in 2007 and 2008 lobbied Washington for more time to advise the public and offer alternatives to passports, said there have been fewer American travellers.

"But for us it's hard to separate the passport issue from a number of factors," he said with a nod to a weak U.S. economy and poor consumer confidence levels as well as weak marketing initiatives in the U.S. from Canadian agencies such as Tourism B.C. and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

"If you don't bait your hook, you don't get the fish."

Both Clipper and Black Ball note Canadian travellers heading south is on the upswing.

"That's all related to the strength of the loonie - our [Victoria-originating] traffic July over July is 20 per cent over last year," Bryan said, noting passports have never really been the issue for Canadian travellers.

"Canadians, on average, are more worldly compared to Americans in terms of travel, and more have passports."

According to Passport Canada's annual reports, 42 per cent of Canadians held a passport in the spring of 2007. That grew to 51 per cent a year later. In 2011, 64 per cent of Canadians held a passport while in B.C. nearly 71 per cent of the population had one.

Work continues to increase the number of passport-holders on both sides of the border, said Rob Gialloreto, CEO of Tourism Victoria.

Both sides have been working on awareness and streamlining the process to getting either a passport or an enhanced driver's licence, he said.

"They are also looking at pre-clearance wherever possible for people who travel regularly and are low-or no-risk travellers - get them cleared as early as possible to focus resources on those who do present a risk," he said.

"We are moving in the right direction."