Monthly Archives: June 2011

New direct flights from Shanghai to Honolulu

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.

Of the 7.4 million visitors to Hawaii, 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.”

“The new generation of affluent Chinese tourists coming to Hawaii since 2009 are generally Chinese businessmen, with a high personal income and a strong desire to spend money in Shopping in Hawaii’s luxury retailers”, said Pierre Gervois, CEO of China Elite Focus and a well known expert in destination marketing to Chinese tourists.

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.

“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.

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Travel industry wants U.S. to ease visa rules for Chinese tourists

The Statue of Liberty might “lift my lamp beside the golden door,” but American tourism officials say too many foreign visitors are finding that door locked when they try to come to the United States.
The U.S. Travel Association, the lobbying arm of the tourism trade, has launched a drive to persuade the American public and its elected leaders that it’s time to ease back on restrictions on foreign tourists. But it may be a quixotic campaign in the run-up to an election year when illegal immigration and terrorism are front-burner issues
The wealthy family from China who wants to come to Los Angeles on a shopping spree because of the weak dollar has little in common with the illegal immigrant crossing the border from Mexico. But safeguards to stop illegal entry sometimes end up snaring just the tourist.
Those bent on illegal activity will try to find ways around the roadblocks. The legal visitor likely will go somewhere more welcoming. That’s a policy the country can ill afford during a major recession, according to the U.S Travel Association.
“As a nation, we’re putting up a ‘keep out’ sign,” said Roger Dow, president of the association, in a press statement this month.
The group said barriers to easy travel to the U.S. have kept out an estimated 78 million foreign tourists (and their wallets) from 2000 to 2010. Lifting many of the restrictions could pump $859 billion into the U.S. economy and add 1.3 million jobs, by the association’s estimates.
Dow’s group points out that most of the barriers are self-imposed and archaic. While Europe has mostly unified its immigration and customs, and countries around the world have dropped or streamlined visa requirements, the U.S. still requires millions of travelers to go through a sometimes long and laborious process to visit here.
As of May, there are 36 countries that are on the Visa Waiver Program – countries whose citizens are not required to get a visa to travel to the U.S. for vacations of 90 days or less. Most of the countries are in western and central Europe, with a smattering of highly developed Asian nations such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Australia and New Zealand are also on the list. Citizens of most of the other 150 or so countries around the globe have to get in line and fill out the paperwork.
But what the travel association sees as “unnecessary barriers on international visitors” are seen by advocates of tighter borders as a way to control who gets to visit the country and, equally important, to make sure they go home when their trip is over.
But with a sputtering economy and affluent Chinese travelers attracted by a historically weak dollar, the travel association thinks the time is right for reform. It will push its “Ready for Takeoff” plan, touting travel as the nation’s top export sector and one that is easy to expand. The group also knows how to hit the hot button. Job growth and tax cuts are mantras Americans can get behind. Foreign visitors are a way to fill tax coffers without raising taxes on Americans. It will create jobs for Americans to check them into hotels, rent them cars and serve them meals. “Chinese tourists coming to the US have a strong desire to buy made in USA products, this is a historical opportunity for the whole nation’s economy to attract more of these affluent tourists”, commented Pierre Gervois, CEO of China Elite Focus.
As part of the push, the association is re-energizing the Discover America Partnership, an umbrella coalition with associations representing hotels, restaurants, retailers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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Overview of the US visa application process for Chinese tourists

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