Europe is watching the developments in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) controversy with interested eyes as the prospect of more Americans gaining passports can only help its marketing efforts.

In its bi-monthly TransAtlantic Trends report, research firm Donald N. Martin & Company, Inc. reported a record 12.13 million U.S. passports, including renewals, were issued in the fiscal year 2006 (ending Sept. 30), by the U.S. State Department. Although this fell short of an earlier department projection for 13 million passports, it was still 19.9 percent more than were issued in 2005, the previous record year.

Total valid U.S. passports are now estimated at 73.12 million. The group estimates that some three million of these are held by Americans living abroad. Thus about 70 million or 26 percent of the U.S.-citizen resident population (estimated at 270 million out of a total of 300 million) now hold a passport, the highest percentage ever.

Twenty-seven Caribbean nations, as well as Mexico and Canada, are urgently encouraging potential U.S. visitors to get passports. For the first time, all visitors to these countries returning to the U.S. by air will be required to show passports, as of Jan. 8.

The only countries in the region relatively unaffected - because they already require passports of Americans - are Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Dominica, St. Lucia, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Eustasius.

The passport requirement will be extended to all land and sea entries to the U.S. sometime between Jan. 1, 2008, and June 1, 2009. A yet-to-be-developed Passcard may substitute for a passport for these land and sea entries.

Jamaica and other countries are developing plans to help cover the cost of new passports for U.S. visitors ($97 per person, so nearly $400 for a family of four). For instance, nearly 60 percent of Jamaica's tourist traffic comes from the U.S.

This new promotion of passports, combined with the recent increases, could push up the number of passport-holding Americans to nearly 80 million by next fall, or nearly 60 percent more than in the 2000. That, according Donald N. Martin & Co., is "a dramatic expansion of the potential U.S. market equipped with all the documentation necessary to travel to Europe."