JOHN Major's announcement that Britain will grant visa-free access to holders of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport was welcomed by Hong Kong people and the Chinese Government. The move will hopefully help to persuade other countries to follow suit. While nodding approval to Mr Major's decision, many feel the British Government is only doing what it should do. Some claim that Britain has no other option, for if it refuses the Hong Kong SAR passport visa-free status, its own citizens will suffer when the SAR government retaliates by denying them visa-free entry into Hong Kong. This 'principle of reciprocity' has been mentioned by some of those seeking visa exemption for Hong Kong residents travelling abroad. The Basic Law says the Central People's Government shall assist or authorise the Government of the Hong Kong SAR 'to conclude visa abolition agreements with foreign states or regions'. Advocates of the reciprocity principle believe that visa exemption concessions made in such agreements should always be mutual. This is a fallacy. Hong Kong residents have never gained visa-free access to other countries on the basis of reciprocity. At present, Hong Kong residents holding the BN(O) passport have to apply for visas when they travel to the United States, Japan, Australia and most European countries including France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Citizens in these countries, however, do not require a visa to come and stay in Hong Kong for a period of one to three months. It has never been suggested that because these countries refuse to grant Hong Hong people visa-free access, their people should be treated in the same way when they travel to Hong Kong. On the other hand, there are countries, Albania for example, which allow visa-free access to BN(O) passport holders, but whose citizens must apply for a visa if they come to Hong Kong. The reason is simple. When the Immigration Department decides whether to allow people from another country to enter Hong Kong, it is obviously more important to consider whether Hong Kong will benefit from their stay in the territory, than to look at the immigration control policy in their own country. Rather than ask how willing their own country is to welcome Hong Kong travellers, it is far more relevant to ask questions such as why they come to Hong Kong, how good is their passport, how life is for them in their home country, and whether they are sure to leave by the end of their legitimate stay. Similar criteria are used by other countries in dealing with visitors from Hong Kong. We cannot expect foreign governments to grant visa-free status to people with Hong Kong passports simply on the grounds that we make the same concession to people with their passports. Nor will it be in our own interests to turn away foreign visitors as a retaliation to their government's refusal to allow us visa-free access. TO maintain our status as an international city our immigration control policy must remain consistent. It will be a very dangerous message to the international community if we start imposing visa requirements on tourists and business travellers who have hitherto been free to enter and leave the territory. Easy access to visitors from outside has always been our policy. Reciprocity has never been. While making positive efforts to promote the SAR passport abroad, we should also realise that it is not of much practical importance to us how many countries in the world are willing to promise, at the present stage, visa exemption for the passport. If Hong Kong continues to prosper after 1997, and Hong Kong residents remain welcomed travellers abroad, we need not worry about the status of the SAR passport as a respectable travel document. More and more countries will be willing to allow Hong Kong residents to visit them with ease and convenience, whether they require visas or not. On the other hand, if things go terribly wrong in Hong Kong, and hordes of refugees flee the territory and make for other countries, governments everywhere will be sure to close their doors, despite any promise they may now make for the SAR passport.