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On a slow bid for China

Hawaii is poised to open its tourism arms to Chinese travelers, but the slow pace for visas could bottleneck efforts

By Lee Catterall

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

HAWAII'S tourism industry is excited about the first direct airline flights between Honolulu and Shanghai, which crack the door open to a new, potentially explosive growth market. The promise remains stymied, however, by the difficulty in Chinese travelers obtaining U.S. visas.

"I believe it will be a challenge," said C.J. Chen, chief executive officer of BMC International, a Web design, translation and marketing company with Hawaii tourism clients. He said the most likely tourism from China will be in seven-day groups visiting Hawaii. "It will be a lot easier for groups."

Of the 7.4 million visitors to Hawaii in 2007, only 56,000 came from China. That should increase with the new twice-weekly service between Shanghai and Honolulu by China Eastern Airlines — but could grow even more, were it not for the visa difficulties. Unlike Japan and South Korea, China does not qualify for visa waivers, and obtaining visas to the U.S. is cumbersome.

At most of the 222 overseas posts that the U.S. State Department operates, the wait time for in-person interviews is less than a week. The average wait time at the five posts in China is 48 days, including 64 days in Shanghai and 60 days in Beijing, according to the State Department.

"It's a challenge," said Mike McCartney, executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "We're hopeful because the first set of charters that came over worked through that."

"It's a barrier, we know that," said Angela Vento, Hawaii director of marketing and sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "Until there's a visa waiver, I think there's still going to be limitation on travel. But the commitment that China Eastern has made, and the wholesale partners that are there to start this charter flight, we believe is a first step."

Visa waivers, which allow visitors to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa, are based on the rate of refusal of a country's visa applications. Those with refusal rates of 3 percent or lower qualify for visa waivers. The refusal rate of Chinese visa applicants has reduced from 24.5 percent in 2006 to 15.6 percent in 2009 to 13.3 percent last year, a rapid decline but still a long way to 3 percent.

"I think it's a long process, and I think we'll advocate that it's an important step," Vento said.

"It's a complex situation and our State Department is on it," McCartney said. "Over time, I think it'll free up and get better, but in the beginning it is a very challenging process."

THE TRAVEL and Tourism Advisory Board, a newly created 30-member industry group appointed by the U.S. secretary of commerce, recommended in February that the cutoff refusal rate should be raised to 10 percent. That could be attainable by China in a short time if its refusal rate continues to decline.

The advisory board recommended various measures to allow increased visitors to the U.S. by travelers from China. They include:

» Establish a maximum wait time of five days for in-person interviews for visas.

» Add four to six visa processing locations and a few hundred officers to process visas. It is estimated that one visa processing officer generates $1.5 million in fees a year, based on a fee of $140 per visa application.

» Allow non-immigrant visas lasting 10 years for Chinese visitors, which has been allowed in other countries.

"I absolutely support them (the recommendations) and I think we have an opportunity, especially with the new travel board," McCartney said. "It's the first time the United States has a board of this government caliber that can knock on the government on our end and their end, as opposed to individual states."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., have introduced legislation, the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act, that would use a country's rates of overstaying visas in the U.S. instead of visa refusal rates. McCartney said he supports the measure, and President Barack Obama endorsed it in a letter to Congress in May as he visited Poland, which seeks membership in the visa waiver program.

"Using visa refusal rates as a primary requirement for admission is not a good way to determine whether a traveler represents a security, law enforcement or illegal immigration risk," according to Jena Baker McNeill, a policy analyst of homeland security for the conservative Heritage Foundation. The overstay rate among countries with visa waivers is about 1 percent.

PAST SHAKY U.S. relations with China and continuing concern about human rights, human trafficking and illicit drugs in China remain an issue. However, since the Tiananmen Square crackdown by the Chinese government in 1989, China has worked to reestablish relations with foreign countries, and its citizens now vacation around the world in large numbers.

"We are all looking at this as an economic issue rather than a diplomatic or a security issue," said Marsha Weinert, Hawaii's tourism liaison during the Lingle administration. "You have different federal agencies that look at it a little differently.

"Whether it be trademark infringements, whether they stay longer than they're supposed to, trafficking, all of those those things are at a much higher level than we're dealing with at this time," said Weinert, now public relations director for Starwood in Hawaii.

"Every time I look into it," McCartney said, "I realize and understand that there's more to it than just the travel perspective. It's a complex issue that goes way beyond just travel.

"It's a delicate issue, and it's about the relationship that our two countries have now and going forward."

Returning from two weeks at Starwood expositions in Shanghai and Beijing, Vento said Chinese travelers and their hosts can "better understand one another, whether it be influencing the culture, knowing there is propaganda in all countries from that end. So we hope this is a way to certainly create understanding."

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