WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge are warning that a deadline that requires 27 industrialized countries to issue their citizens computer-coded passports to travel to the United States could threaten the U.S. travel industry.
The countries - 22 European nations, Japan, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore - have to begin providing passports with technology that recognizes travelers' faces by Oct. 26. Congress imposed the deadline after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The State Department says nearly all the countries are expected to miss the deadline, which would force millions of visitors with old-fashioned passports to apply for visas for the United States.
In a letter to Congress last week, Powell and Ridge said the tourists, who do not usually need visas to travel to the United States, might visit elsewhere, and they urged lawmakers to delay the deadline to Oct. 26, 2006. Failing to do so, the officials said, would result in "grave consequences."
"It is important to note that the U.S. economy would likely suffer gravely if tourists `vote with their feet' and go elsewhere, possibly resulting in multibillion-dollar losses to our economy and reducing employment in one of our economy's most dynamic sectors," Powell and Ridge wrote to Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Sensenbrenner has asked Ridge and Powell to testify on the question next month. In the meantime, he has written to ambassadors of the affected countries to determine which nations will likely miss the deadline.
"Right now, we're in the information-gathering stage," Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner, said.
The request to delay the deadline highlights the challenges for the Bush administration as it strives to put into effect new measures to screen foreigners.
Officials are scrambling to meet a congressional deadline of Dec. 31, 2004, to fingerprint and photograph travelers at the 50 busiest land ports of entry. This month, domestic security officials announced that Mexicans with border cards, who make up the bulk of foreigners at land crossings, would probably be exempt from the security system.
Some members of Congress, including Democratic Rep. John F. Tierney of Massachusetts, have expressed the concern that exempting Mexicans and extending the deadline for foreigners who lack computer-coded passports would create "gaping holes" in security.
Administration officials and travel industry executives disagree. Industry representatives have been lobbying to delay the deadline because visitors from the affected countries are so important to the tourism market. About 12 million of the 19 million overseas visitors who traveled to the United States in 2002 came from the 27 countries whose citizens can visit for 90 days without visas.
Tourists from Britain, France, Germany and Japan alone spent $22.2 billion in the United States in 2002, accounting for a third of spending by overseas visitors, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.
Failing to extend the deadline would also create problems for U.S. officials overseas. The State Department says the demand for tourist visas would probably surge to 12 million in the 2005 fiscal year from 7 million in 2003, creating a workload that would most likely swamp consular staffs and create significant backlogs in issuing visas.