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Published: Friday, 7/24/2009

U.S. passport policy hurts tourism, trade in Canada

DETROIT - John King, a dealer of used and rare books 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.

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," Mr. King says.

Nuts or not, the new policy is 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 fall-offs worse than the recession economy would indicate. Attendance at Stratford and the Shaw Festival is 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 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.

What's going on all stems from what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and from a story that turned out to be totally false, but which has had a continuing impact.

In the days after the planes hit the World Trade Center, Americans morphed into a frightened people, terrified that terrorists were in their midst. Then, a story appeared in the Boston Globe alleging that many of the hijackers had come in from Canada.

That was soon discovered to be completely false. None of the terrorists had entered through Canada. Yet the damage had been done, and from time to time, politicians still repeat the dreary falsehood that the hijackers came from Canada.

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. This 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 efficiently.

The report noted that 300,000 people cross the border each day and said that 10 million jobs depend on it, 7 million of them in the United States. It concludes by noting that now is the ideal time for reform, because 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.

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Matty, it's over: When Michigan's media have taken notice of Canada-U.S. border issues in recent months, it usually has had to do with the continuing controversy over the Ambassador Bridge.

The bridge is owned by one man: Manuel "Matty" Moroun, a Grosse Pointe trucking industry billionaire. For years, he insisted that his 1929 bridge was all that was needed. Then, a consortium of government and private interests calling themselves DRIC, for Detroit River International Crossing Project, announced plans to build a new bridge about two miles south of the current one.

With that, Mr. Moroun said he would build a second bridge right next to the Ambassador. Since then, there has been intense debate in the Michigan Legislature over which to support.

What few seem to notice is that no bridge can be built without the consent of both governments, and Canada is clearly in favor of the DRIC plan.

This week, the Canadian government agreed to buy 94 acres of land from Windsor for it. Canada has repeatedly denied Mr. Moroun a permit to build his new bridge.

What part of no is so hard to understand?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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