Hong Kong will ask Japan to verify reports it is about to grant visa-free access to more than two million holders of the special administrative region's (SAR) passports, immigration officials say. Deputy Director of Immigration Chow Kwok-chuen said yesterday that the department had not received notification of the move, which was disclosed to Hong Kong journalists in Japan on Friday. The press secretary of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hatsuhisa Takashima, said at a separate press conference on Friday that Hong Kong was one of the main targets of Japan's efforts to promote tourism. He said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his cabinet had decided that tourism would play a vital role in the country's economic recovery. 'Since Hong Kong is one of the most prosperous areas in this part of the world, it is one of the main targets of our promotional efforts, so I expect that the people in Hong Kong will have their ears and eyes always open to the Japanese call to come to and enjoy Japan,' he said. But Mr Takashima did not reveal any details of the plan to grant visa-free access for Hong Kong people, who are estimated to account for 10 per cent of the average five million visitors to Japan every year. Mr Chow said one of the Immigration Department's goals had been to secure visa-free access for holders of SAR passports as quickly as possible and it would seek to confirm the development with Japanese consular staff. Japan relaxed visa measures for SAR passport holders in 2001 by extending the validity of multiple-entry visas from one to three years. Last year Japan took a further step, allowing people who work for specific companies to apply for five-year multiple-entry visas. So far 124 countries or territories have agreed to grant visa-free access to SAR passport holders. Mr Chow said the SAR passport's strong security features and the unique 24-hour inquiry hotline for overseas law enforcers to verify the authenticity of documents were among its strengths. While the United States was also a main lobbying target for visa-free access, Mr Chow said the US passed a law last year requiring all passport-issuers that wanted citizens to enjoy visa-free access to the US to incorporate biometric technology - such as fingerprint identification - in their passports from October 2004. Mr Chow said many countries were considering such measures to strengthen security following the September 11 terrorist attacks. 'We're monitoring the development closely,' he said. 'The design of the future SAR passport may have to follow this direction.' While Mr Chow said the department found the use of fingerprints to be more practical than other features, such as iris or voice recognition, it would have to wait for the international community to agree on standardised technology before deciding what elements to add to the SAR passport. Meanwhile, the Immigration Department said it would upgrade its computer systems at all control points, starting in June, by installing optical character recognition machines, which will be able to read existing identity cards and future smart ID cards. The department is also considering the feasibility of allowing applications by Internet for documents such as visas to Hong Kong and birth and death certificates.