Waiving visas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 June, 1998, 12:00am

It is ironic it has taken an economic crisis to force the Immigration Department to begin dropping the outdated visa restrictions imposed on Taiwanese tourists and visitors from several other countries, who would be happy to spend their money here, if only it were easier to gain admittance.

The visa restrictions on Taiwanese date back to the post-Cultural Revolution period, when they were not allowed to visit China and so the colonial administration felt unable to allow unrestricted access. But while Beijing long ago reversed its policy, Hong Kong was much slower to follow suit: leading to the absurdity of it being much easier for them to visit the mainland than the SAR.

Other regional competitors were not so slow. Macau long ago granted visa-free access to Taiwanese. Even South Korea has begun doing so. But only this week has the Immigration Department taken the first tentative steps in the same direction, ostensibly in response to the drop in tourist numbers.

Even now, the new visa-free facility is highly restrictive since it only applies to Taiwanese holding a mainland visit permit with an endorsement that can be difficult to obtain before arriving in Hong Kong. Nor is this the only instance of unnecessary visa regulations.

During the Cold War, Hong Kong mirrored its colonial masters by making visits by Soviet and east European nationals very difficult. While the Iron Curtain has long since collapsed, the SAR has still not ended the restrictions imposed during that period. Even Czech and Hungarian visitors, whose countries are close to joining the European Union, still require visas. So do Russians, therefore shutting off a lucrative source of tourist revenue.

Once again, it has taken the economic crisis to make the Immigration Department see sense, with a review now underway that should eventually ease these visa requirements. Hong Kong often boasts of its liberal immigration policy and, in many respects, that is correct. But this treatment of Taiwanese and former Soviet bloc visitors reveals a less open aspect and shows the needs for a thorough review of what other outdated visa restrictions still remain in place.