HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii's tourism officials are supporting federal legislation that could increase the number of Chinese and Canadian visitors to the U.S.
The Chinese market is untapped, officials said. In 2010, 54 million Chinese traveled abroad. About 3.7 million visited Europe. Only 800,000 visited the U.S., and out of that number, only 62,000 came to Hawaii.
By comparison, an average of 1.2 million Japanese visit Hawaii each year. However, Japan is under a visa waiver program with the United States, while it takes about 48 days for potential visitors from China to get a visa to come to the U.S.
"The Chinese visitors get their visas, and it's only good for one year," said Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii 2nd District) "For most other countries, U.S. visas are good for ten years."
Hirono and Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) has introduced the Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America -- or "VISIT USA" Act, which would allow Chinese visitors to get a five-year visa, good for multiple entries. The act also would extend a pilot program that allows the State Department to use videoconferencing to conduct visa interviews for foreign nationals applying for visas.
"Ease of access and allowing the traveler to get here sooner and easier is a key to travel," said Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "How much time you can spend on your vacation is critical, not just how long or how far it is to go, but how fast I can get there. I we want to ease that process."
"As a board member of Brand USA, our job is to create international travel into the United states, which would in turn create more jobs, and of course boost the economy," said noted island chef Roy Yamaguchi, who is also a board member of the U.S. Corporation for Travel Promotion.
Just in the last year, the first regularly-scheduled flights began between Shanghai and Honolulu. Those flights could bring 125,000 Chinese visitors to Hawaii this year, according to McCartney.
"Those China visitors actually spend about $358 per day. And that's all money spent in Hawaii, in our local economy, to create jobs," McCartney said.
The bill also would increase Hawaii's fourth-largest visitor market by creating a Canadian retiree visa that would allow Canadians more than 50 years old to stay in the U.S. for 240 days, compared to the current 180 day limit.
According to Hirono, there is a companion bill in the U.S. Senate. She is confident that there is enough bipartisan support for the measure to become law.