What affect will the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), that now requires U.S. citizens to use passports for reentry into the United States, have on our island paradise?

Passports have been required for most international travel between countries, but some U.S. neighbors, like Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and many Caribbean islands, only required a driver’s license or birth certificate for entry and exit. This has been determined to be a security threat, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

However, put into perspective, the WHTI only currently applies to air travel. For now you can still visit the Caribbean by cruise ship, or drive across the Canadian or Mexican borders. The second phase of the WHTI goes into effect January 1, 2008, when all entry into the U.S. will require a passport. This is obviously an attempt to gradually secure our borders with as little disruption to citizens as possible.

Looking at US State Department statistics for the last ten years, there are about 79 million US citizens that have valid passports. That’s about 26% of the US population. The stats also show that in the last three years 31 million passports were issued, meaning over 39% of all valid passports have been issued in the last three years.

The State Department is also looking to introduce a “Passport Card” in the near future. This card, similar to a credit card, will primarily benefit those who frequently cross the Canadian or Mexican border, but can be used for travel to and fro the other countries that are now limited by the WHTI. This card will also be less expensive to purchase than the passport book currently issued.

How will this new initiative impact tourism in Key West? It should help bring more visitors. The large number of visitors to Mexican resorts, such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, may opt for an easier vacation in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico (U.S. territories are exempt from the passport requirement). And next year when cruise ship travelers will require a passport, it’s possible that more ships will add Key West as a destination.

The biggest immediate impact may be the 2007 Spring Break. Cancun has become a favorite spot for college breakers, but how many of them planned ahead and got their passports. My guess is, not many. So expect a huge crowd in Key West, as well as some of the other spots that have lost business to Cancun over the years like Fort Lauderdale, Daytona and Panama City.

Will Key West be ready for a surge of passport-less vacationers? Maybe, but more than likely very few here even understand the new law and probably just saw it on the TV news a few days ago. Hopefully the bars and restaurants will prepare!