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South Korea visa waiver program starts Nov. 17


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POSTED: Saturday, November 01, 2008

Eligible visitors traveling from South Korea to Hawaii will be able to visit the islands without going through the arduous visa process as early as next month due to the implementation of a visa waiver program that is expected to be a boon for Hawaii's beleaguered visitor industry.

Most Korean citizens, who have e-passports and have received clearance via the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to travel, will be eligible to travel to the U.S. without a visa starting Nov. 17, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul announced yesterday.

"This is something that we've been waiting on for a long time," said State Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert, who will be in Korea the week of Nov. 11 marketing Hawaii along with Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and Lloyd Unebasami, the interim chief executive for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

While the visa waiver program is expected to double visitor counts from Korea to Hawaii both the first and second years after it takes effect, the market is not without its challenges. The state still will need to ensure that there are ample air seats as well as address South Korea's current economic woes, Wienert said.

Though promising in the first quarter, with an 11.1 percent increase, the arrivals from other Asian countries were offset by a 1.4 percent decline in the second quarter and 15 percent decline in the third quarter, according to the latest state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimates.

It may take time for the visa waiver program to have an impact in Hawaii, said Sharon Weiner, vice president of global communications and government relations for DFS Group, which operates the duty free shops in Hawaii.

"The Korean financial market is seriously suffering and that has discouraged the mood of the overseas traveler. Even though they are coming, they are unlikely to spend as much as they have in the past," Weiner said.