HONOLULU - Bipartisan legislation recently introduced by Rep. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) would cut red tape and reform U.S. visa policies.
The measure could potentially bring an estimated 280,000 visitors yearly from China, Canada and other high-growth markets to Hawaii, boosting economic growth in the state, she said.
"The Pacific region is a vast market for new visitors. Reforming our visa process is a cost-effective, common-sense way to make it easier and more inviting for international businesses and tourists to come to Hawaii and the U.S.," said Hirono. "It's why this is an idea both Democrats and Republicans are behind."
Congresswoman Mazie K. Hirono was joined by Mike McCartney (left) and Roy Yamaguchi at Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Center to introduce legislation to boost tourism and jobs in Hawaii.
The Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America Act, or VISIT USA Act, would establish five-year multiple entry visas for Chinese visitors, extend the time Canadian retirees can stay in the U.S., make changes to the Visa Waiver Program and make other low-cost reforms to increase tourism in the U.S.
In 2010, more than 54 million Chinese citizens traveled abroad. Europe welcomed 3.7 million of these visitors. The U.S. only saw 800,000 Chinese visitors, of which only 62,000 came to Hawaii.
The reforms contained in the VISIT USA Act could help put the U.S. on a path to match Europe as a destination for Chinese visitors in the coming years. This growth can also give a huge boost to Hawaii, Hirono noted.
With the average visitor from China staying in the state for six days and spending $350 a day, this growth in visitors could also yield an estimated $573 million for Hawaii's economy.
"The VISIT USA Act is great news for Hawaii's tourism economy," said Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
"Improvements to the visa process and other policy changes will help to ease access and make visiting the U.S. and Hawaii more convenient for many international visitors. We are encouraged by this legislation and the potential it has to boost not only visitor arrivals and spending, but also our state's economy through increased commerce and job growth.
"In fact, using estimates from the U.S. Department of Commerce, we could see potentially 6,000 new jobs created in Hawaii as a result of the reforms in the VISIT USA Act."
Key provisions of the VISIT USA Act include:
1) Allowing Chinese visitors to apply for five-year multiple-entry visitor visas. Currently, Chinese visitors can only apply for a one-year multiple-entry visitor visa.
2) Creating a videoconference pilot program to conduct visa interviews for foreign nationals applying for visas.
3) Allowing Canadian citizens to get visas that last 240 days, renewable every three years.
4) Lowering visa fees during off-peak seasons to encourage more applications when demand is lower.
5) Allowing U.S. allies in the fight against global terrorism to become part of the Visa Waiver Program, so citizens of selected countries can travel to the U.S. more easily.
"Other countries are aggressively pooling their national resources and staking a larger claim in the international tourism industry," said Roy Yamaguchi, board member of Brand USA.
"I applaud efforts like the VISIT USA Act and other proposals to facilitate travel to the United States."
This bipartisan bill has also been introduced in the Senate by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) is also a Senate cosponsor of the legislation.
In addition to the VISIT USA Act, Congresswoman Hirono's tourism agenda includes successfully advocating for additional funds for the State and Homeland Security Departments to speed up visa processing in 2012.