Officials move to ease
Korean entry process

Hawaii is a test case for a program
to make it easier for South Korean
honeymooners to travel to the U.S.

Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to liberalize visa procedures for inbound South Korean travelers through a travel program aimed exclusively at the strong Korean honeymoon market, officials announced yesterday.

The Aloha Korean Honeymooners Travel Program, which will ease the scheduling of visa appointments for this niche travel market, is designed to boost Korea's tourism in the islands. Hawaii had as many as 120,000 visitors from South Korea at one time, but long waits for visas and a downturn in the Korean economy have cut the number of visitors by two-thirds, said State Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert.

The new program could increase Hawaii's visitor count from Korea, which numbered about 40,000 arrivals last year, by another 12,000 or so visitors a year, Wienert said. The program started yesterday.

"This is an opportunity to speed the application time for Korean honeymooners who are traveling to Hawaii only," Wienert said. "We're real encouraged by this program because it strengthens the relationship between Hawaii and Korea and it reconfirms our commitment to assist this travel market in any way that we can."

In the last decade, Hawaii officials have tried to speed up or eliminate the visa requirements for visitors from South Korea. Gov. Linda Lingle had advocated a Hawaii-only travel visa exemption to increase tourism from Asian countries, but like a proposal from U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who called for a trial visa waiver program in 1996, her suggestion did not progress.

While only about 4 percent of South Koreans who apply for visas to Hawaii are rejected, the scheduling of a visa appointment is perceived as difficult, officials said. Qualifying travelers who book their honeymoon packages through participating travel agencies will get a 30-day open appointment to apply for a visa at a date and time of their choice. Korean travel agencies participating in the honeymoon program include Hanjin Travel, Hyundai Dream Tour, Lotte Travel, Pan Korea, Sejoong Travel and SK Tourvis.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul has agreed to keep open 1,200 visa appointments in Korea every month for Hawaii-bound honeymooners.

The embassy agreed to liberalize the visa process for Hawaii on a test basis because the state's isolated geographic location makes it easier to monitor visa-carrying visitors, Wienert said.

If the program proves to successfully ease travel without compromising security, the state will likely petition to expand the program to cover all types of travelers and not just honeymooners, she said. Other states also have expressed interest in creating similar programs, Wienert said.

"Eventually, we'd like to see all Koreans be able to travel more freely between the U.S. and their home country," she said.

By minimizing the paperwork and accelerating the visa application process, Hawaii will be able to build on its relationship with South Korea and promote travel and tourism, said Lingle, who began discussions with Korean officials to increase travel between the country and the state during her 10-day mission to China and Korea in June.

"This honeymoon campaign demonstrates Hawaii's continued commitment to strengthen our relationship with the people of South Korea and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul," Lingle said. "Hawaii looks forward to welcoming Korean honeymooners to one of the world's most romantic spots."

While the tourist market for Koreans coming to Hawaii is small, the state has hopes that the market will grow as South Korea continues to strengthen and Asia becomes an even more powerful world player, said Frank Haas, marketing director for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"It provides another opportunity for us to diversify our market," Haas said.

Increasing Korean travel to the United States also is an important initiative for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said Michael D. Kirby, U.S. Consul General to Korea, who helped make the new program possible.

"We are pleased that we were able to enlist the help and support of the state of Hawaii and private businesses to create and implement the Aloha Korean Honeymooners Travel Program," said Kirby, whose office processes more travel visas than any other U.S. embassy.

Last year, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul processed 350,000 visas. The agency is expected to process 400,000 this year.

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