Korea visa deal is closer
An agreement signed yesterday by U.S. and South Korean officials took Hawaii a step closer to a major increase in tourism from Korea.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington, D.C., yesterday to begin talks on waiving visa requirements for South Koreans traveling to the United States.
"This is a milestone that we've been waiting to see happen for a very long time," said State Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert.
The only obstacle that remains to the implementation of a visa waiver program for Korean visitors is the development of an exit program that will track them, she said. Travel officials haven't been given a definitive answer on when the visa waivers could take effect.
Hawaii had about 42,000 visitors from Korea in 2007, but that could easily double or triple once the expanded visa waiver program is in place, Wienert said.
Hawaii saw an increase of more than 100 percent in Korean honeymooners after the launch of the Aloha honeymoon visa program, which eased access for wedding couples, said Michael Merner, executive director for Hawaii Tourism Asia.
"Their economy is doing really well and we believe that Hawaii's close geographical proximity to Korea as well as our cultural similarities with the market will position us to reap the rewards of this market," Wienert said.
While South Korean investors have been active in Hawaii real estate for some time, if visa waivers are granted, that market is expected to expand significantly over the next several years.
Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann lobbied for expansion of the visa waiver program during a trip to South Korea last October.
"I'm very pleased that this agreement to facilitate travel from Korea is moving forward," Hannemann said.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.