New visa waivers are welcome boost to isle tourism
The president has signed into law a measure awarding visa-waiver status to a dozen more countries, including Japan and Taiwan.
HAWAII'S tourism industry received a considerable boost when President Bush signed into law a measure that will allow South Korea and Taiwan to join the visa waiver program. Japan will remain the primary source of visitors to Hawaii, but a jump in tourism from those two countries should provide an economic windfall to the islands.
Hawaii was the tourism destination of 35,000 South Koreans and 20,000 Taiwanese in 2005, the most recent data available. Austin Kang, president of the Coral Creek Golf Course and co-chairman of the Korean Visa Waiver Committee, expects Korean visitors to Hawaii to rise to more than 200,000 a year. He points out that Guam, which doesn't require visas, hosts 150,000 to 200,000 Koreans yearly. Visa-free travel is expected to begin next July.
Korean visitors to Canada rose 80 percent in the first year after Canada began waiving the visa requirement. Korean visitors spend an average of $3,700 in the United States, according to the Commerce Department.
Visitors from 27 countries, including most of Western Europe, Australia and Japan, have been allowed to visit the United States for up to 90 days without applying for a visa prior to their trips. Japan supplied 1.37 million visitors to Hawaii last year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Korea and Taiwan are among a dozen countries joining the program.
The biggest barrier has been a condition that the annual percentage of rejected visa applications from a country's nationals had to be less than 3 percent before a country could be eligible for visa-waiver status. South Korea's "refusal rate" has been 3.5 percent. The new law raises the eligibility threshold to 10 percent.
The new law is intended to reward some of America's "partners in the war on terror." Bush endorsed it as a benefit to "our closest partners." The law also directs the Department of Homeland Security to create an exit tracking system for departing air passengers.
Kang said the program should not only increase tourism but also create a closer economic bond between Korea and 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 told the Star-Bulletin's Susan Essoyan.
Hawaii will be competing for Korean visitors with Las Vegas, which also has direct flights from Seoul. Both destinations are eying China, as Nevada became the first non-nation in 2004 to win the Chinese government's approval to open a tourism office there.
Hawaii, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City have since received similar approval, needed because China has not awarded the United States "approved destination status." The number of Chinese traveling abroad is expected to nearly triple to 100 million people by 2020.