Thursday, August 26, 2004

Feds make it
tougher on
foreign tourists

New security checks will
lengthen visitors' wait after
arriving at the airport

International visitors arriving in Honolulu next month will likely spend more time standing in line to clear customs before they can begin their Hawaii vacations.

Starting Sept. 30, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will require all international visitors to be photographed and fingerprinted upon arrival in the country. Visitors from Canada are exempted.

The change means that customs agents in Honolulu will go from processing about 600 visitors a day to about 4,250, an increase of more than 600 percent. Wait times to conclude the procedures are estimated to grow to an average of an hour or longer from about 45 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Currently, only visitors who are required to have a visa to enter the country must pass the more stringent checks designed to weed out terrorists, criminals and those likely to overstay their visas. But under the expanded program, all international visitors -- including those from Japan, Hawaii's biggest international visitor market -- will face the additional scrutiny.


The process, which adds 23 seconds per person, will likely increase wait times for international visitors from an average of 45 minutes to more than an hour during busy times, said Jeff Sawyer, primary branch chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Hawaii.

The predicted delays have created a quandary for the state, which must find a way to meet security requirements and maintain customer satisfaction, said Marsha Wienert, Linda Lingle's tourism liaison.

Already some international visitors have experienced up to two-hour delays, she said.

"It's an incredible challenge, but we're going to do everything that we can to keep wait times below an hour," Sawyer said, adding that the department has spent five months brainstorming with the state Department of Transportation and state tourism officials to reduce the effects on visitors.

Plans include:

>> Staffing all 52 Customs entry booths and calling back personnel who are in training or who have been loaned to other operations.
>> Adopting a seven-day work week to alleviate Sunday overtime issues so that Customs can have a full complement of workers each week.
>> Asking airlines to stagger arrival times so that all visitors are not arriving at the same time.
>> Converting three airport gates into visitor lounges to give waiting visitors a comfortable place to rest.
>> Launching an educational campaign to teach visitors about the process so that they can move through the lines faster.

But even with the above changes in place, it is going to be impossible to dramatically reduce wait times for international visitors, Sawyer said.

"Even with 52 booths open, if four airlines come in all at the same time, there's no way that we'll be able to keep up," he said.

State Transportation Director Rodney Haraga is meeting with airport and security officials in Los Angles and San Francisco this week to find out how they have pared down wait times for international visitors to about 20 minutes, said Scott Ishikawa, transportation spokesman.

"We're going to do the best that we can do on our end to work with U.S. Customs to see what we can do to clear the time it takes to process passengers," Ishikawa said. "Making people feel welcome at the airport is our job -- it's all about customer service."

Increasing wait times for international visitors is a concern for Hawaii since the state's economy depends so much on these arrivals, Wienert said.

About 1.4 million international visitors have come to Hawaii since January, generating around $2 billion in revenues, she said.

The numbers are growing, up 15.3 percent from a year ago, but it is a fragile market with plenty of competition, and visitors might go elsewhere if they do not get the reception that they are looking for, she said.

"It's got to be a hospitable entry. To make people stand in line for a long time is not the first impression that we want from our world-class destination," Wienert said.

While most of Japan's visitor industry realizes the changes are coming, many will still look to the state to expedite the process, said Steve Kawagishi, chief executive officer of the Japan-Hawaii Travel Association.

"If it takes too long, it will have an adverse effect on visitors," Kawagishi said.

In some cases the procedure already has, said Marvin Chang, president of Dragon Tours, whose Chinese customers have already experienced a few hitches.

"There have been some complaints about waiting, and adding more passengers is just going to slow things down," Chang said.

Department of Homeland Security


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