New passport requirements -- and the delays they created -- are disrupting travel plans for some Valley residents who traditionally spend their Christmas holiday in Mexico.
Although Mexicana Airlines says it has added flights from Fresno to Mexico and that bookings are "normal," some Valley travel agents say they're selling substantially fewer airline tickets this holiday. They and some of their customers blame federal rules effective earlier this year that require U.S. citizens flying from Mexico or Canada to have a passport.
The new rules have clogged passport windows and created long delays for the travel document. Some travel agents say clients couldn't make their reservations when the fares were cheaper because they hadn't received their passports.
"People are still having problems getting a passport," said Lupita De Alba-Padilla, owner of De Alba Travel in downtown Fresno.
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De Alba-Padilla estimates her office, which serves mostly Hispanics, has sold 30% fewer airline tickets compared with last December. She said the cost of a U.S. passport -- $97 per person in most cases -- has made the trip unaffordable for some families.
"We've noticed the decline in families. ... It's more like two people traveling. If you have a large family, that means buying more than two passports," she said.
Maria Barreto and her husband, Fernando, were planning to fly Dec. 15 from Fresno to Mexico to visit family, but had to postpone their trip. Barreto, 24, of Fresno applied for a passport during the first week of November. She's still waiting to get it.
"We were excited. It's really disappointing. We won't see them," Maria Barreto said.
The new passport rules are among a set of changes that will affect even those traveling by car or bus across the Mexican border next year.
Starting Jan. 31, U.S. citizens will need to show a passport, or a driver's license and a birth certificate, when entering the United States by land. Currently, a U.S. citizen can enter just by declaring he or she is a citizen.
The U.S. State Department was taking about 12 weeks this summer to process passport requests, although that time has been cut to four to six weeks now, said Steve Royster, a department spokesman.
Royster said many applicants are getting their passports sooner, especially this month because it's the off-peak season.
Hilda Morrison, general manager of Travel Shoppe in north Fresno, said about 25% of the calls she has received inquiring about Mexico have chosen not to fly from Fresno to Mexico this month. Instead, they're taking a bus to Tijuana and flying from there to their final destination, Morrison said.
About 71% of California residents who travel to Mexico do so to visit family, according to a 2006 study by the Mexican university, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Many U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents of Mexican descent tend to drive but some fly to Mexico, said Dulce Maria Vega, consul of community affairs at the Mexican consul's office in Fresno.
Transportes Intercalifornias, a bus line, says it has seen an increase in passengers in part because of a partnership with Aeroméxico. Under the arrangement, passengers ride free to Tijuana, and catch an Aeroméxico flight from there to their final destination. The bus company is scheduling five buses a day to Mexico, up from three at this time last year, said Juan Ramirez, a company bus driver.
The ride-and-fly special, if booked three months ago, charged passengers $89 each to fly from Tijuana to Guadalajara. By contrast, a one-way flight from Fresno to Guadalajara costs $400 this month.
The Barretos, who live in central west Fresno, considered taking the ride-and-fly combination, especially after seeing the cost of an airline ticket from Fresno climb from $380 to $500 over a two-week period. But without passports in hand, they decided against it.
"I don't think my husband is willing to do it. It's harder to come back in without a passport," she said.