During the third day of the Senate Judiciary Committee's markup of immigration reform legislation, the committee adopted Senator Mazie K. Hirono's measure that would cut government red tape that makes it more difficult for tourists from Hong Kong to come to Hawaii. The measure is identical to a bill Hirono introduced earlier this year with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT).
"This small change to the visa waiver system could have a big impact on Hawaii's economy," said Hirono. "Right now, people in Hong Kong can visit more than 140 countries and territories without visas, but these potential Hawaii tourists must still endure a time-consuming visa approval process in order to come to the United States. By fixing the visa waiver process for visitors from Hong Kong, we can make it easier for thousands of tourists from this region to come to Hawaii."
This measure adopted by the committee fixes a technical problem that prevents Hong Kong from joining the Visa Waiver Program. Under current law, only "countries" are eligible for the program. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country but is a self-governing region of China, so a special provision needs to be added to the law to make Hong Kong eligible.
Jim Reddekopp, a tour operator on the Big Island, said Hirono's bill could bring more visitors to his business.
"We've been waiting for new business from Asia. This is an excellent opportunity for all of the state to benefit -- from hotels and restaurants to all of the tour suppliers in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island," Reddekopp said when Hirono first introduced her bill this year. "We thank Senator Hirono for introducing this bill."
Lisa Simon of the National Tour Association (NTA) also said Hirono's legislation would increase tourism from Hong Kong, both in Hawaii and across the country.
"We applaud Senator Hirono's leadership in presenting this legislation that would open the way for increased visitors from Hong Kong to the United States. NTA supports this bill and any other endeavors that serve to increase international visitation, particularly from sizeable Asia markets. We anticipate this legislation would have an immediate and profound impact on increased travel from Hong Kong, which would have a positive impact on our economy and jobs creation."
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Hong Kong visitors spent on average $230 for each day they stayed in Hawaii, almost 20% more than the average visitor. Visitors from Hong Kong also tend to stay in Hawaii longer than the average visitor. In 2012, only a little more than 4,000 visitors from Hong Kong visited Hawaii and the absence of direct flights doesn't help. This bill aims to increase that number.
The Visa Waiver Program is an essential tool for promoting travel and tourism. Instead of having to go through the process of getting a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate, participants in the Visa Waiver Program can get a travel authorization online instantly and visit multiple times for stays of up to 90 days.
Hawaii's visitor industry has a long history of benefitting from more streamlined visa laws with Asian countries. Last October, Taiwan was added to the Visa Waiver Program. Just a few months later, Hawaiian Airlines announced plans for direct flights from Taipei to Honolulu in part because of the projected increase in demand from Taiwan's participation in the waiver program.
The legislation has already received support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Travel Association, American Hotel and Lodging Association, National Association of Counties, National Retail Federation, International Franchise Association and National Tour Association.