Finding a compromise between border security and freedom of travel was the challenge last week at the first international summit of the Binational Tourism Alliance.
"We have to ensure the safety of this country," U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Kevin Corsaro said during the two-day conference held on the American side in Conference Center Niagara Falls.
A proposed U.S. law, which would go into effect Dec. 31, 2007, would make it mandatory for every individual, regardless of age, to carry a passport or a special pass card when crossing the U.S.-Canada border.
The pass card -- which would cost about half that of a passport -- would be the size of a driver's license and contain biometric coding proving identity, citizenship and other vital data.
Americans crossing into Canada would be required to have passports or pass cards to get back into the country. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Canadians don't have passports.
American and Canadian tourism officials, business leaders and politicians stressed that post- 9/1 1 concerns must not impede the free flow of people and goods on the Niagara Frontier section of the world's friendliest border.
Arlene White, executive director of the alliance, said last week that the organization will now seek the support of the governors of Florida, Nevada and California -- states with the highest numbers of Canadian visitors -- which would particularly feel the effects of the new law.
In Florida alone, Canadians spent $1.4 billion in 2003, which state officials said was a huge slice of the local economy, White said.
White and other alliance board members will meet with the three governors in Washington, D.C., this spring to find ways to alleviate the negative impact of the proposed ID card.
Former U.S. Rep. John J. LaFalce said the law is more likely to inconvenience his 91-year-old mother than any terrorist.
LaFalce said that he and his wife have passports and border-friendly Nexus cards but that his mother has no such documentation and is not about to get any at this stage of her life.
"The U.S. and Canada have always had such a close relationship," LaFalce said. "This is going to kill spontaneous travel."
Mayor R.T. "Ted" Salci of Niagara Falls, Ont., and Mayor Vince Anello said the law is already affecting day travel between the two cities because people think it's already in effect.
With the Canadian dollar at a 20-year high, the Homeland Security Department's timing couldn't be worse, the mayors said.
Canadian day travel to the New York side has been climbing as steadily as the Canadian dollar, said merchants at Outlets at Niagara Falls USA and the Boulevard Mall. Vehicles with Ontario license plates fill large portions of their parking lots.
The major topic at the second day's session was the 2012 bicentennial of the War of 1812, to be held across a wide swath of the Niagara Frontier from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake and Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown.
"If we do it right, this event will be as big as the Olympics for the Niagara region," White said.
Meetings between the tourism and cultural officials will be scheduled within the next four weeks to further plan the bicentennial, she said.