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The scene, Casablanca. The time, cinematic World War II. Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid have arrived in the North African port in an attempt to get to America. The Nazis are on their heels. By coincidence, Humphrey Bogart happens to be holding two letters of transit that he'd obtained to get himself out of the country. But Ingrid Bergman must have those letters, and she'll do almost anything to get them . . .

Welcome to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a new program of the Department of Homeland Security.

Originally proposed as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the WHTI will close a longstanding loophole in U.S. law that allowed U.S. citizens to travel to Canada, Mexico, and most of the Caribbean and then re-enter the U.S. without a passport. By law, the measure must be fully implemented by the beginning of 2008, but an incremental step set to take effect on January 1, 2007, could well require passports sooner for anyone traveling to those countries by air or sea -- including cruise ships. The second phase of the initiative would go into effect after December 31, 2007, extending the passport requirement to all border crossings on land as well.

Philosophically, the new measure will simply apply the same rules to hemispheric travel as currently apply to everywhere else in the world. Practically, though, they have the potential to create a massive bureaucratic and logistical logjam as travelers rush to get last-minute passports or show up at embarkation ports without the necessary ID. It also has the potential to adversely affect the economies of regional areas dependent on U.S. travel dollars.

On July 13, the U.S. Senate approved its 2007 Homeland Security Department Appropriations Bill, which contained an amendment sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) that would push implementation of the WHTI back to June 1, 2009. The version of the bill approved by the House of Representatives on June 7 includes no proposals on delay, so the Leahy-Stevens amendment will need to survive a House-Senate conference committee.

While the travel industry is crossing its fingers for a delay, they're not counting on it either.

"Consumers should proceed as if the new passport regulations are going into effect as scheduled," says Carnival Cruise Lines representative Vance Gulliksen. "While there is discussion of additional delay, as of this time, the first implementation phase for land and sea travel is still set for December 31."

Translation: Get your passport now or prepare to spend your vacation in the U.S. of A. The one large cruise line that currently operates cruises entirely within U.S. waters -- NCL, with it's three-ship Hawaii fleet -- even expects there might be an uptick in business as travelers weigh the passport-please Caribbean and Mexican Riviera against passport-free Hawaii.

"I would say it is definitely positive," says Susan Robison, the line's VP of Corporate Communications. "It won't ever be the key factor, but it is certainly favorable."

If you don't currently have a passport, the State Department website (http://travel.state.gov/passport) provides information on obtaining one.

To get a passport for the first time (or if you have an expired passport issued more than fifteen years ago, or issued while you were under 16), you need to go in person to one of 6,000 passport acceptance facilities throughout the country, bringing two regulation-size photographs of yourself, proof of U.S. citizenship (expired passport, certified birth certificate, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship, or consular report of birth abroad), and a valid form of photo ID, such as a driver's license. Acceptance facilities include many federal, state, and probate courts, post offices, some public libraries and a number of other state, county, and municipal offices. You can find the one nearest you using the State Department's search page, at http://iafdb.travel.state.gov.

Current fees for new passports are $97 for citizens age 16 and older, $82 under age 16. Processing time is generally at least six weeks, but expect delays as the deadline gets closer.

Citizens who need a new passport for travel within two weeks may visit one of thirteen regional passport agencies, listed at http://travel.state.gov/passport/about/agencies/agencies_913.html. Appointments are required, and you'll need to bring a completed passport application (downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html), plus appropriate ID and proof of citizenship (see list above), and two regulation passport-size photos. Expedited service costs $60 plus any mailing fees, above and beyond the regular application fees. If you don't live near a passport center, you can apply for expedited service at a local passport acceptance facility, located in post offices, courthouses, and so on, and then follow up through overnight mail.

You can renew an expired passport through the mail as long as you were over age 16 when it was issued and still have the same name (or can provide legal documentation of a name change) and your old passport is undamaged and was issued within the past fifteen years. Forms are downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html. Fees for renewal are currently $67. Expedited renewal services are available for an additional $60 plus mailing costs.

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