By ERIN MILLER
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, submitted a bill Thursday calling for federal officials to qualify Hong Kong for the visa waiver program to visit the United States.
Hirono said about 4,000 people from Hong Kong visit Hawaii annually right now.
“We know we could increase that tremendously,” she added.
Hong Kong residents can visit about 140 other countries and territories, including Guam, without first applying for a tourist visa, the senator said during a telephone press conference from Washington, D.C. Hong Kong, which is a self-governing region of China, does not qualify for the visa waiver program because it is not a country. Hirono’s office described the bill as a bipartisan effort, with Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch signing on as the lead Republican co-sponsor.
Hirono said the measure wasn’t necessarily a step toward getting visa waivers for mainland Chinese visitors yet.
“I’d like to make visa approvals for Chinese visitors much more efficient,” Hirono said. “I hope at some point to make China a visa-waived country.”
The federal government has a list of conditions a country must meet to be placed on the visa waiver list, she added.
Hirono, as a representative, championed the Visit USA Act, which would have made it easier for Chinese visitors to come here. The visa waiver program already allows tourists from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to enter the United States without a visa. Doing so has increased the number of visitors from those countries and encouraged airlines to offer direct flights to Hawaii, Hirono said.
Visitors from Hong Kong spend, on average, $230 a day in Hawaii, compared with the $192 the average visitor here spends, Hirono said. Visitors from Hong Kong also tend to stay longer than other visitors, she said.
“We think it is really important for Hong Kong to qualify as a visa-waived place,” Hirono said.
Lisa Simon, of the National Tour Association, said adding Hong Kong to the visa waiver list would have a “profound impact” on the visitor industry across the country.
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