Ottawa is simplifying the passport application process in an effort to ease delays for the travel document, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay announced Friday.

MacKay announced that it will no longer be necessary to have a guarantor or to provide proof of citizenship when renewing a passport.

For first-time applicants, the process will be simplified so that most citizens can act as guarantors.

Currently, only certain professionals, such as engineers and doctors, can do so.

"These measures are part of a broader effort by the government of Canada to modernize Canadian passport services and increase its capacity and efficiency to better meet demand," MacKay said.

These measures include:

  • A campaign to fill hundreds of new full-time positions
  • Extending office hours where warranted at locations in cities such as Montreal, Point-Claire, Whitby, Brampton and Vancouver
  • Opening 65 additional receiving agents in border and rural communities at participating Canada Post and Service Canada centres
  • Moving some operations to larger facilities to accommodate new personnel and increase the capacity.
  • Expanding existing office space where facilities permit
  • Adding an evening production shift in certain locations to accelerate the processing of applications and modernizing technology

Some 1.7 million passports have already been issued for 2007-2008, MacKay said.

"While the demand remains very high, the measures implemented so far are clearly paying off. Nationwide, the situation has already improved, producing 40 per cent more during the same time last year," he said.

MacKay's announcement comes in the wake of U.S. rules that require Canadians to have passports to cross the border.

U.S. eases passport rules

Meanwhile, the U.S has temporarily eased the tough new passport rules for air travellers to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

The change would allow travellers awaiting a U.S. passport to meet the new rule requiring one for travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

"We are grateful for the change. We see it as a step in the right direction. It's going to allow a number of Americans who might otherwise not have been able to travel this summer to actually do that, and hopefully to Canada," Chris Jones, a spokesperson for the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told CTV's Mike Duffy Live

But he added that the revised rule could create some degree of uncertainty with travellers.

"This additional change has come on the heels of a series of other changes to this whole law, which I think it creating a certain amount of confusion on the part of Americans and Canadians in the travel market," he said.

The new rule also won't clear the way for travellers who haven't already applied for the travel document.

DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said the easing of the passport rule would only affect those who have already applied for passports.

"Individuals who have not yet applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated," Knocke said.

The change in policy comes in response to complaints of a massive backlog of applications at U.S. passport offices and fears that Americans' summer travel plans would be snarled.

The resulting backlog has caused up to three-month delays for passports and ruined or delayed the travel plans of thousands of travelers.

Under the revised procedures, American air travellers would only be required to prove that they had applied for a passport in order to re-enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Until the end of September, travellers will be allowed to fly without a passport if they present a State Department receipt, showing they had applied for a passport, and government-issued identification, such as a driver's license.

Travellers showing only receipts would receive additional security scrutiny, which could include extra questioning or bag checks.

The shift could provide an economic boost to Canadian businesses that rely on U.S. consumers and have worried that the new rules, combined with the high Canadian dollar, would seriously reduce the flow of cross-border traffic.

"Americans will be able to come here without the weight hanging over them of fear that they couldn't get back in their own country without a passport," MacKay said.

"We are looking into the possibility of having this apply in some form to Canadians as well entering into their country," said MacKay, adding that there were ongoing discussions on the topic.

"We'll continue to inquire about this issue."

There is still no passport required for Americans driving across the border to Canada or Mexico, or taking sea cruises, although those travellers are expected to need passports under new rules beginning next year.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative kicked off in January. The program requires air travellers to show passports on returning from Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the hemisphere, with an exemption for United States territories.

In a briefing Friday morning, Maura Harty, the assistant secretary for consular affairs, acknowledged that the State Department did not expect the flood of applications.

"What we did not anticipate adequately enough was the American citizens' willingness and desire to comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in the timeframe that they did," Harty said.

The development comes after months of lobbying by members of Congress whose offices have received complaints from the districts they represent.

Homeland Security has said it intends to go ahead with a January 2008 beginning for requiring passports at all land-border crossings in the United States -- a security measure that could prompt a new wave of applications.

The State Department is still working on coming up with a cheaper, passcard alternative for such land crossings.

With files from The Associated Press