CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Margaret Okumura helped check in passengers yesterday at the Korean Air ticket counter at Honolulu Airport.
Aloha, Korean visitors
Visa waivers would ease travel difficulties from South Korea
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The number of Koreans visiting Hawaii could soar under new legislation that will combine an expanded visa waiver program with electronic tracking of traveler arrivals and departures in the United States.
"We are very optimistic that we will be able to welcome South Korea as a visa waiver country, probably by the first part of next year," said Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison. "We're looking forward to it."
The number of Korean visitors to Hawaii, as high as 123,000 in 1996, has been hovering around 35,000 a year, because of difficulties getting visas. But a little-noticed provision in the "Improving America's Security Act of 2007" could help change that. The bill was signed by President Bush on Aug. 3.
The new law allows more countries to qualify for visa waivers if they have cooperated with the United States in counterterrorism efforts and meet certain requirements, including low rates of visa denials and few visitors overstaying their visas.
"This is the most significant travel reform since 9/11 and sends a clear message to our friends around the world that we want them to visit and they will have a positive experience when they arrive," said Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Seawoo Kim, left, visiting from Seoul, South Korea; Kim's son Jintak, 8; and Christine Lee of Michigan wait with their luggage in the lobby of the Waikiki Resort Hotel. The hotel is owned and operated by Korean Air and is a primary hotel accommodation for many visitors from Korea, including pilots and staff of Korean Airlines.
Austin Kang feels so strongly that Koreans should have the right to visit Hawaii without visas that he even wrote a song about it.
Now the wish expressed on that "Visa Waiver Song" is close to becoming true. A new law signed by President Bush is expected to allow South Korea to join the visa waiver program, once a new system is in place to electronically track airline passengers exiting the United States.
When that happens, Kang, co-chairman of the Korean Visa Waiver Committee, anticipates a big jump in Korean tourism. Hampered by hassles in getting a U.S. visa, Korean arrivals to Hawaii fell to just 35,000 in 2005, the most recent data available.
"If we can join the visa waiver countries then the number of Korean visitors to Hawaii can easily go up to 200,000 and 300,000 a year," said Kang, who recently became a U.S. citizen. "For example, Guam doesn't require visas, and they get 150,000 to 200,000 visitors from Korea."
The Improving America's Security Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-53), signed Aug. 3, will reward U.S. allies such as South Korea with visa waivers if they have helped with counter-terrorism efforts and meet certain criteria.
The refusal rate for visa applicants from the country must be below 10 percent, a much easier target than the current 3 percent cap. South Korea's rate is about 3.5 percent. Countries must also have low rates of citizens who overstay their visas.
"South Korea fits all of the criteria," said Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison. "We are very optimistic that we will be able to welcome South Korea as a visa waiver country by probably the first part of next year."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Passengers checked in yesterday at the Korean Air ticket counter at Honolulu Airport. Koreans may qualify for visa waivers within the next year, which could lead to increased visitor traffic to Hawaii.
The law directs the Department of Homeland Security to establish an exit tracking system for departing air passengers as a condition of expanding the visa waiver program.
"I've already contacted the Department of Homeland Security," Wienert said. "We want to be sure that Honolulu and Kona, our two international airports, will be airports for this exit program."
That exit program could include a touchpad to read a fingerprint and match it with the identification of the same passenger collected upon arrival, she said.
As it is now, Koreans have to travel to apply in person at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul for visas. They travel by train or even air, and sometimes have to spend the night with no guarantee that their application will be accepted, Kang said.
The number of Korean visitors to Hawaii was as high as 123,000 in 1996, but dropped to 21,000 in 1998 with the Asian financial crisis, state data show. It recovered to 59,000 in 2000, but then fell again as the United States clamped down with stringent security measures.
"We think Korea deserves a visa waiver," Kang said, noting that it has been a staunch U.S. ally for more than 50 years.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, who has pushed for visa waivers for Koreans since she was lieutenant governor, said, "Maybe finally technology has come to our aid."
"Part of the problem is that there is very little way to keep track of visitors who came and who overstayed, but through the new technology that can be applied, that problem can be resolved," she said.
"If all goes well, this will be terrific news for Hawaii," she said. "This will dramatically increase the number of visitors we can expect from South Korea. It will probably replicate what happened with Japan when it got into the visa waiver program."
Kang, president of the Coral Creek Golf Course, predicted not only a boost to hotels, restaurants, and tourism-related activities, but also an increase in Korean investment in Hawaii.
"A lot of people want to invest money in Hawaii but they cannot come here so often, or whenever they want to come," he said.
The Waikiki Resort Hotel, a pioneer in catering to the Korean market, is looking toward next year, and doing some renovations.
"We're hopeful that everything will be in place by summer of 2008," said Trudy Taniguchi, director of sales and marketing at the hotel. "We are getting drummed up and ready for this visa waiver to go through. It's been talked about for many, many years."
Jennifer Sabas, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, said the bill "provides a great balance in support of U.S. tourism while protecting our borders."
The Korean Visa Waiver Committee is already preparing for the next step. After years of letter writing, meetings with officials and sharing their "Visa Waiver Song" CD, with music by Joong-shin Kim, the group is now working on a new booklet. It will summarize airport regulations and immigration law covering illegal stays and employment to help prevent problems, Kang said.
"We want to educate the people before they leave Korea," he said, "or even residents in the United States."