US easing visa restrictions for growth nations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2008, 12:00am

The US government is trying to make it easier for people in countries with strong investment growth potential to obtain a US visa, while imposing tighter restrictions on visa-free countries to better guard against terrorists.

'In China, there is an 80 per cent visa acceptance rate in Shanghai. But the perception is that a US visa is hard to get,' US assistant secretary of commerce for market access and compliance David Bohigian said.

It can take a few weeks to get a US visa on the mainland and about a week in Hong Kong. The biggest complaint from businessmen in India was that it could take about six months to get a US visa, he said. The US government hoped to reduce the waiting time to a few days.

Mr Bohigian assumed his US Department of Commerce post in December 2005.

Since 2001, the US government has been reworking the risk assessment of overseas visitors.

From January 12 next year, short-term travellers to the US from 27 countries that do not require a visa - including Britain, France, Japan and Australia - must register online with the US government at least three days in advance.

The tightening of travel restrictions for these visitors is a security measure, allowing for visitors to be screened before they travel.

New visa arrangements were also introduced to allow mainland tour groups to travel to the US from June 17. The China National Tourism Administration and the US Commerce Department signed a memorandum of understanding last December 11, allowing mainland leisure travellers to visit the US in group tours.

Administration chairman Shao Qiwei will lead the inaugural tour group to Washington on June 17.

Only travel agencies approved under the so-called Group Leisure Tour Booking arrangement can organise such travel to the US. In the initial stage, the special arrangement will apply to residents of Beijing, Tianjin, Hubei, Hebei, Hunan, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces.

Their passports must be issued in one of the areas to use the group leisure tourism appointment channel.

Outbound Chinese tour group packages can only be organised to countries that have a bilateral agreement, known as Approved Destination Status, with the mainland. So far, 95 countries have this agreement, including Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and now the US.

Without this status, mainlanders can only travel to a country for business or to visit friends and relatives.

A destination also cannot be directly marketed to Chinese consumers, and mainland travel agents cannot promote such group tours.

Currently, the US is the fourth-biggest source of tourists for the mainland. Data from the World Tourism Organisation shows that the mainland is the fastest-growing tourism market in the world.

By 2020, the mainland market will be the world's fourth-largest in terms of tourists, it says.