US, China extend visas

LIHUE — Starting today, a reciprocity agreement will extend short-term business and tourist visas to-and-from China to 10 years, and student and exchange visas to five years. The move is aimed at providing economic benefits in tourism, trade and investment.

The announcement Monday from President Barack Obama said the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to the longest validity periods possible under U.S. law.

“I think it is a good thing for people here who are going over there, too,” said Cheryl Michioka, president of Mokihana Travel in Lihue. “A lot of people want to go to China, and it takes a really long time to process your visa, and I would think it would be the same thing coming here.”

Changes in visa validity will not affect visa eligibility criteria, and the basic visa processing fee remains unchanged at $160. The 10-year visa will encourage travelers who have hesitated with turning over their passport for three weeks to get the visa approval, Michioka said.

“A lot of business travelers cannot let go of their passport that long because they travel too much,” she said. “Now they can do a multiple entry up to 10 years and it will save them a lot of money and red tape.”

Kauai Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Francisco said a main barrier to getting more Chinese to visit was the long delay in processing visas. The question now is whether Kauai is ready to service and do business with China, to ensure people keep visiting and conducting business.

“Bilateral trade can only increase as relationships continue to grow,” Francisco said.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Mike McCartney said China is a market with tremendous growth potential and a key of the state’s work toward diversifying its tourism profile. Chinese visitors have the highest spending average of $395 per person-per day, and arrivals from this market are up 27 percent to 128,792 visitors, year-to-date, and the visa validity arrangement will further stimulate travel from China, he added.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono led the effort to urge the State and Treasury departments to push for extending travel visas during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue this past year. It was also part of her VISIT USA Act in 2013.

“The longer visas for Chinese travelers is a game-changer for Hawaii’s visitor industry and something I’ve pushed for a long time,” said Hirono said.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), chairs the Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness, and Innovation, and held hearings on the visa issue. He said more than 130,000 visitors from China visiting Hawaii in 2013, spending $328.6 million, and is expected to grow to 7.3 million and contributing $85 billion a year to national economy by 2021.

“Chinese visitors contributed more than $300 million to Hawaii’s economy last year and make up the fastest-growing market of outbound travel,” Schatz said in a press release.

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