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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Lingle proposes visa rule changes

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gov. Linda Lingle plans to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge this week and ask for a new multiple-entry visa for visitors to the United States, as well as additional money for embassies to process visa applications.

The requests are aimed at increasing the flow of business and vacation travelers from China, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries by making the visa application process run more smoothly. Such changes could mean a significant boost to the state's tourism-dependent economy.

Some "visa-waiver" countries, including Japan, do not require visas for travel to the United States, but in other countries it can take months to get a travel visa.

"Although we agree and believe that there are additional security measures that need to be put into action, that should not stifle economic activity," said Lingle's tourism liaison, Marsha Wienert, who helped to develop Lingle's proposal on the visa issues.

The highest-priority proposal from Lingle is for a visa that would allow multiple entries for at least a year to 18 months to anywhere in the United States, Wienert said.

A multiple-entry visa likely would benefit frequent business travelers and could encourage repeat visits by tourists.

"If someone goes through three months of this process, don't just give them a one-time one," Wienert said.

It is unclear how long it could take to implement such a change.

The Lingle administration will not propose the previously touted idea of a Hawai'i-only visa, however.

"For us to go in and ask for something for ourselves right now, we felt we wouldn't be able to achieve," Wienert said.

The problem of a Hawai'i-only visa would be tracking those leaving Hawai'i for the Mainland.

"The system is not set up," she said.

Lingle might be able to make a case for a Hawai'i-only visa once better biometric identification measures for visas are in place, Wienert said.

Lingle will ask Ridge for additional staffing and money from the Department of Homeland Security for U.S. embassies, which process visas overseas, Wienert said.

"All of the embassies are telling us they're terribly underfunded and understaffed," Wienert said.

The Department of Homeland Security set stricter rules that lengthen the process for processing visas, but the State Department does not have enough money for the embassies to carry out the new procedures quickly enough, she said.

Lingle also will ask that domestic travel-agency association members with government accreditation assist the State Department with processing visa applications by reviewing paperwork before it is submitted to the government.

Wienert said Ridge will probably not give an immediate go-ahead to Lingle's proposals, but she hopes he will review the ideas.

If Lingle's requests are put into action, it could be a first step toward boosting tourism nationwide, including to the Aloha State. Of about 6.5 million visitors to Hawai'i last year, close to 39,000 were from China, 48,000 were from South Korea and 13,000 were from Taiwan.

Some believe China could produce millions of tourists to Hawai'i annually if the Chinese government eases its visa restrictions.

But many experts also say it could be years before that happens, particularly in a post-Sept. 11 environment, in which scrutiny of visa applicants has increased as anti-terrorism efforts have grown.

Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at kyamanouchi@honoluluadvertiser.com.