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Although most U.S.-based travelers are still avoiding international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) is urging the U.S. Department of State to resume the normal passport processing as soon as possible, especially as travel advisors begin booking international trips scheduled for late 2020 or 2021.
Passport processing services became significantly reduced on March 19; changes included eliminating expedited services and restricting the issuance of passports to those experiencing “life-or-death emergencies” and those who are in need of the document within 72 hours.
These changes, as well as the Department’s Level 4: Global Health Advisory, are still in effect nearly three months later. The Department’s latest update, released yesterday, outlined plans for the passport agencies to gradually reopen in three phases this summer, noting that each agency and center will open on a different date, based on local conditions. Local conditions include a city’s medical infrastructure, its number of active coronavirus cases, its emergency response capabilities and the status of its shelter-in-place orders.
On May 29, shortly before the latest update, Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president and CEO, sent a letter to Carl Risch, the assistant secretary for the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, pushing for the swift resumption of “normal or close-to-normal” operations, while also acknowledging the rationale behind the changes.
In the letter, Kerby wrote that he is “hopeful that international travel will resume in the near future, though certainly in a limited fashion and so long as the appropriate public health officials deem it safe,” and that when that happens, the need for passport services will “grow in importance.”
Resuming passport processing operations may be a small part of this process, but it is a critical and central one — indeed, it is the foundation of Americans’ long-cherished ability to travel abroad.
“Over the past few weeks, we have been contacted by a number of members whose clients’ plans to travel internationally in late 2020 and 2021 are at risk of being negatively impacted by their inability to apply for or renew their passports,” Kerby also noted in the letter. “Many of these clients applied for passport renewals before the pandemic reached full force, and [they] have been unable to secure any information from the Department about the status of their applications.”
During the Department’s phased reopening this summer, advisors can expect to see a limited workforce return to passport offices to resume processing of applications submitted prior to March 19, along with emergency filings (phase one); followed by a return of most agency staff to process applications on a first-come, first-served basis (phase two); and, finally, a full return of agency staff and the resumption of expedited passport processing (phase three). Customers and staff are mandated to wear face coverings and practice social distancing during phase one, and they encouraged to do so throughout phases two and three.
Because governmental policy regarding the coronavirus pandemic has tremendously impacted the hard-hit travel industry, ASTA’s collaboration and communication with lawmakers during this time becomes even more critical, according to Kerby.
“We at ASTA are committed to working toward that end with those governments, our members and the broader travel ecosystem in a way that puts the safety and health of U.S. citizens at its center,” he said. “Resuming passport processing operations may be a small part of this process, but it is a critical and central one — indeed, it is the foundation of Americans’ long-cherished ability to travel abroad.”
ASTA’s more than 14,000 members are encouraged to reach out to members of Congress to let their voices be heard about this issue. An email template is available via ASTA’s advocacy portal.
The DetailsAmerican Society of Travel Advisorswww.asta.org