By Lloyd Dunkelberger and Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers said they will work to alter or overturn a new law that requires Canadian and other foreign travelers to obtain international permits to drive in Florida.
The law, passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Scott, could be amended as early as March, when lawmakers officially convene. Typically, state laws go into effect in either July or October.
The law sparked concern and criticism from Canadians, who discovered the new requirements through published news reports and social media this month.
“We will work with the Legislature to amend the law this year so it does not burden international visitors to our state, who make up an important part of our tourism industry,” said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman said Monday.
Canadians play a vital role in Florida tourism, the state’s No. 1 industry. In 2012, Canadians comprised more than one-third of the total 10.2 million foreign visitors to the state, according to statistics released Monday by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency.
The 3.6 million visitor figure was up nearly 10 percent from the year before, tourism officials said.
Though state transportation officials have said they do not intend to enforce the law, at least 15,000 Canadians have been scrambling within the past few days to get an international driving permit for scheduled trips to Florida, creating mid-winter angst on both sides of the border.
“It was like an earthquake,” said Phillippe St-Pierre, chief spokesman for the Canadian Automobile Association of Quebec. His offices alone have issued about 7,000 permits that cost $25 each since Feb. 12, when Canadian officials first became aware of the law that went into effect in the Sunshine State on Jan. 1.
In the more populous province of Ontario, the number is even greater. Exact figures could not be obtained Monday because the travel club’s Toronto offices were closed for the Canadian Family Day holiday.
“On Thursday in southern Ontario alone we did over a thousand by lunchtime,” said CAA spokesman Ian Jack.
Movement is also occurring in Florida as a result of the law.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has asked the Senate Transportation Committee to review the issue and consider options, said Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta.
“In the meantime it is our understanding that the provision is not being enforced, though we recognize that enforcement is not the only concern,” Betta said. “We are certainly sensitive to issues that could impact tourism.”
The Canadian visitor numbers “are clear evidence of the potential impact, so we certainly want to take the steps necessary to resolve this issue as quickly as possible,” Betta added.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, the vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Monday the state should make it as streamlined as possible for Canadians who come here.
Despite the state’s proclamation that the law would not be enforced, the CAA is recommending that its 5.8 million members get the permit.
State transportation officials advocated the law last year as a means to improve highway safety. It was part of a large housekeeping measure requested by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
But even if it is not enforced, Canadians remain concerned because the law could impose widespread insurance ramifications. Canadian insurance carriers, some fear, could refuse to pay claims if Canadian drivers without permits are involved in traffic accidents.
“It remains the law. And it is the insurance thing that continues to cause some disquiet,” said Jack, the CAA spokesman.
Before Jan. 1, Florida law required non-U.S. residents to have a valid driver’s license from their own country.
The updated law adds the requirement of a second permit which, in Canada, is issued by the automobile associations rather than any government agency. The document also requires a passport photo be attached as well.
Canadian government officials and groups ranging from the CAA to the Canadian Snowbirds Association were taken by surprise by the law, because it appears Florida officials did little to communicate it to them.
At the Canadian House of Commons last Thursday, member Paul Dewar, of Ottawa, asked: “Why did Canadians have to learn about this through the media?”
Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. has also reached out to the governor’s office to determine if the law can be changed quickly.
Local officials, too, are clamoring for an immediate change.
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism bureau.
In the year that ended Sept. 30, the number of Canadians who visited Sarasota County grew at nearly twice the rate as the total visitors — 16.3 percent vs. 7.8 percent overall.
More than 1 million Canadians travel to Florida in the initial months of the year, often for extended stays fueled by parity of the Canadian dollar to the U.S. currency.
Beginning in 2010, Canadians also began buying Florida properties at an accelerated rate, representing 8 percent of all existing home purchases in the state for the year.
“In 2010, the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice area drew the most buyers, representing 18 percent of total home purchases,” a Canadian government study noted. Orlando-Kissimmee ranked second.
That buying spurt represents but one of the reasons Florida lawmakers say they are eager to rescind or rewrite the law, which was sponsored by a Wachula representative last year.
“We value having international visitors in our great state, especially our Canadian friends, and expect this issue to be corrected so we can continue to welcome them,” said Florida House Economic Affairs Committee Chairman Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.
“The committee is working to find ways to address this matter, to ensure that Florida’s roadways remain open as usual to our visitors,” Patronis said.