POSTED: 8:43 p.m. HST, Jun 22, 2012
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono on Tuesday said easing visa restrictions for Chinese visitors could fuel tourism in Hawaii, but former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who also favors the legislation, said the bill's lack of progress in Congress suggests Hirono is not effective.
At the first of five joint appearances in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate — a forum sponsored by the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association — Hirono said lifting visa restrictions on visitors from China would help with job creation and economic growth. She said her bill, which would allow the Chinese to apply for five-year multiple entry visas to the United States instead of just one-year visas, shows her ability to collaborate.
But Case noted that the bill that Hirono introduced in November has just six co-sponsors and has not moved from a House subcommittee. He questioned why Hirono waited to introduce the bill. "People need a senator that works all six years, not just in an election year," Case said. "That's what I will do."
Hirono said her bill was co-sponsored by a Republican and is supported by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor interests such as Unite Here!, the union that represents hotel workers. She asked anyone in the audience at Hilton Hawaiian Village to raise their hands if they did not like the bill.
"I see no hands," she said, "because we recognize, we understand how important it is to be very focused on what we need to do to promote tourism, not just to Hawaii, but to our country."
The issue shows the challenge for voters as they evaluate Hirono and Case before the August primary. The policy differences between the candidates on many issues — like tourism — are based on emphasis and nuance.
Hirono cited her push to add South Korea to the federal visa-waiver program, which has opened up a potentially lucrative tourism market for Hawaii. The visa waiver program enables people from three dozen countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without getting visas.
But Case also has supported adding South Korea to the waiver program.
Case said that unlike Hirono he would have voted for a free trade agreement with South Korea that Congress approved in October. The U.S. trade representative has described the trade agreement as the most commercially significant in nearly two decades.
Both Hirono and Case believe Hawaii needs a role in Brand USA, a federal campaign that began last year to promote the United States to foreign tourists.
Hirono said she has secured an additional $6 million in federal money a year for airport modernization in Hawaii, which could improve the visitor experience.
Case said the state should diversify tourism outside of a Waikiki-centric model, such as through ecology- or science-based activities.
Hirono referred to her financial struggles growing up — her mother fled an abusive husband in Japan to bring her children to Hawaii — and said it helps her understand the challenges of many hotel workers during the economic downturn.
Case weaved his campaign theme of balancing the federal budget and ending the political gridlock in Washington as necessary for economic and tourism revival.
The questions at the forum, asked by moderator by Paula Akana of KITV, were submitted by members of the tourism association. Hirono and Case did not have the opportunity to question each other directly.
John Carroll, a former state legislator and attorney running in the Republican primary for Senate, also participated in the forum, which diffused the one-on-one exchanges between the two Democrats. Former Gov. Linda Lingle, the leading Republican candidate, did not include the forum on her schedule.
KITV broadcast a recording of the forum on a sister digital channel Tuesday night and plans a rebroadcast on Saturday afternoon. Case has complained that Hirono declined to accept debate invitations from commercial television networks, instead choosing a televised forum on PBS Hawaii in June.
Hirono told reporters afterward that her bill easing visa restrictions for Chinese tourist could take time, like adding South Korea to the waiver program did. "So it takes a little while, but believe me, the president recognizes how important China is and what changes we need to make to the visa policies, so this is an idea whose time has come," she said.
Case said Hirono had five years in Congress to introduce the bill but did not until she was running for the Senate. "Drafting and introducing a bill is very simple," he told reporters. "Doing something about it after you do it is what the issue is."