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Islands create lures for the passport-weary

Special to The Times

Soft sand beaches and brilliant hibiscus still hold the same allure they've always had, but this year there's been a little cloud between U.S. travelers and paradise.

New regulations that went into effect in January made passports mandatory for air travel to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Suddenly, U.S. travelers were in a mad scramble for the document, which created such a backlog of applications (now estimated at just under 3 million) that the federal government has eased the requirement to have the actual passport in hand until Sept. 30. But you still need to prove you have applied. (To see where to get this proof, go to www.travel.state.gov and click on "Click Here for Proof of Passport Application." Note that the site says it is taking seven to 10 days for a passport application to be tracked online and that it's no longer possible to track it by the locater number.)

And if you have applied, that means you've sent in the fees, which means a couple and two kids applying for first-time passports and requesting expedited service are going to be out about $600.

To ease the financial sting, destinations affected by the travel initiative are offering specials that, in effect, cover passport costs.

"We looked ahead and said this could shut our business off if we were not proactive," said Fred Lounsberry, chief executive of Nassau/Paradise Island Promotion Board in the Bahamas, which estimates it paid for 14,000 U.S. passports before its promotion ended.

Destinations that cater to families also have worried about the effect of the new rules.

"A passport was something you did not have to think about," said Vernice Walkine, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "Now you do. Even if the parents have passports, the kids do not. For resorts like the Atlantis, families are their bread and butter."

Tourism to the Bahamas in the last six years has been as strong in June, July and August as it historically has been in February, March and April, Walkine said. The islands couldn't risk losing that business.

To help the 2 million Americans who previously traveled to the Caribbean every year without a passport and the 4 million who went to Mexico or Canada, destinations and resorts came up with a way to deal with the expense U.S. travelers would incur. Among them:

SuperClubs, with resorts in the Bahamas, Brazil, Curacao, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, will reimburse the total cost of all new passports on Caribbean trips for U.S. residents as an on-property credit or a credit for their next SuperClubs vacation if they book by July 31 for travel any time the rest of this year and 2008. Info: (877) 467-8737, www.superclubs.com/passport.

The One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, will reimburse guests for up to two newly issued children's passports if the family reserves a minimum of seven nights on the Escape to Baja special. The resort will pay up to $82 for children 15 and under and up to $97 for those 16 to 18. Info: (800) 637-2226, www.oneandonlyresorts.com.

Through Dec. 15, Marriott and Renaissance Caribbean & Mexico Resorts will credit one bearer of a new passport or new passport application in any room $100 if the party stays at least five nights.

If you would like additional information, contact (888) 727-2347, www.paradisebymarriott.com/passport.

Other tropical destinations are offering spending money to offset passport costs:

Some hotels in Aruba are issuing $25 to $100 in hotel credits for drinks or food if you show that destination as the first stamp on your passport. Info: www.aruba.com/phpNews.

In St. Maarten, some hotels offer $100 in "St. Maarten bucks" for new passport holders who stay at least five nights. Those may be spent on food, drink and retail products in St. Maarten. Info: (800) 786-2278, www.visitsxm.com/accommodations/specials.cfm

So has the expense been worthwhile for destinations that shelled out incentives and rebated passport fees, only to have the rules change?

"This was an investment in keeping visitors coming to our destination. Nassau/Paradise Island is full of vacationers right now, and we didn't want to be sitting here wishing we'd done something about passports," Lounsberry said.

"Now we just don't want the delay in requirements to expire and still have people who cannot get passports," he said.

"I'm not trusting any timetables anymore."

travel@latimes.com

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