OTTAWA - Mexican travellers and the Canadian tourism industry that serves them were sent into panic mode Tuesday after the sudden announcement of a new visa requirement for visitors from that country.
Visas were also re-applied to citizens entering Canada from the Czech Republic. Both decisions were based on a growing number of refugee claims.
The Czech government responded by recalling its ambassador to Canada and imposing visa requirements on Canadian diplomats and business travellers.
But it was the Mexican visa requirement, announced by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney late Monday, that will be felt most acutely in Canada.
Mexico was the sixth largest source of tourists to Canada last year, and the numbers had been steadily increasing. Problem is, it's the also the largest source of refugee claims.
A Canadian Tourism Commission website geared toward Mexicans, called "Escape from the Routine," was still boasting that a "valid passport and return plane ticket is all you need" to visit Canada.
Tour operators, hotel owners and other Canadian businesses that depend on Mexican tourism described the decision, announced late Tuesday, as a "bomb" that would affect both their revenues and their staffing levels.
The industry is calling on the Conservative government to delay the visa requirement until November, to allow it to cope with the change
"What really hurts about this is that there's was no warning at all ... and all of a sudden, basically the day the doors were supposed to open on the beginning of the peak season, they're being shut in our face a little bit," said Hume Rogers, of Ottawa's Capital Hotel and Suites.
Rogers had 25 rooms booked for 10 days this month with a Mexican tour group.
Finding a Mexican on Parliament Hill is as easy as tuning in to Spanish chatter around the Peace Tower or the Eternal Flame.
A group of Mexican high-school teachers visiting for a month on an educational exchange program had arrived on Sunday, making it in just under the wire.
"This has been a difficult year for our country," said Larissa Montiel, of Mexico City.
"There's the swine flu, and people shutting their doors to us, and now these immigration problems. It's sad for us."
In Mexico City, people with plans to visit Canadian cities this summer flooded the Canadian embassy and their travel agent with calls, trying to figure out what they needed to do to get their documents on time. A 48-hour grace period for Mexicans with imminent travel was to expire at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday.
A source with the Mexican government said the embassy had given little information or guidance to people on what steps were required or how long the process would take. A notice on the embassy's website directs travellers to send their documents by courier to the embassy.
Carla Rosa, director of GrupoTravel's head office in Mexico City, said people are reluctant to give their documents to a third party for transport, and are showing up at the embassy anyway.
"It's a mess," said Rosa, who said many people will lose their money.
A government spokesperson said things are actually running smoothly at the embassy in Mexico, with line-ups in "the low hundreds."
One line at the embassy has been arranged to hand out information kits and applications, and the other for those with completed applications and the new $85 fee. People in emergency situations are being given priority.