Apec card opens doors to shorter immigration queues - but not all

Apec's coveted card provides access to shorter immigration queues, but not before navigating red tape and inconsistent rules across nations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 11:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 5:55pm

If you want to flash a bolt of electricity through any conversation among business executives in Asia, there can be few safer ways than mentioning the Apec Business Travel Card (ABTC). It seems to provoke passions wherever it goes.

Out pour anecdotes of hassles in immigration queues, complaints about the many months it takes for the card to be approved and frustration at those economies that refuse to accredit you.

You also get envious Americans and Canadians who whinge over just how long it will take for their governments to sign up: even Russia joined the scheme last May, leaving just the United States and Canada as outliers that have yet to provide the card to their business communities.

There is something quaint about watching business executives comparing cards, comparing which economies have given them access and which have not - a bit like American schoolchildren enviously comparing baseball cards.

Conversations are animated by complaints and grim stories of travel adversity and angst

The ABTC is perhaps the one reliable thing that any businessperson knows about the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum - and one of a tiny number of achievements over Apec's 25-year life that really do seem to have made a difference.

It took the Apec Business Advisory Council many years to get Apec officials to buy into the idea that regular business travellers should be given high-speed access through immigration queues and easier visa access to the region's economies.

For those that have the card - and there are fewer than 500,000 in active use at the moment - it is up there with the gold Marco Polo card that gives you access to Cathay Pacific executive lounges.

But for all the passionate support the card gets, most conversations are animated by complaints and grim stories of travel adversity and angst.

The first and most frequent complaint is just how long it takes to get the card. If you are a Hong Kong business traveller, for example, once you apply to the Immigration Department, officials then send your application off to their counterparts in immigration departments around the 21-member Apec region for each to give, or withhold, ABTC approval.

After about two months of waiting, you normally get a phone call to say, for example, that you have 14 member economies that have approved you so far and do you want to take the card as it is, or would you prefer to wait for more approvals to roll in. I capitulated once I had every economy except Peru and Malaysia. Heaven knows why they were taking so long.

The next complaint is how you qualify. In Hong Kong, the criteria to qualify are very simple, but in Australia, for example, you have to be able to demonstrate that you generate at least A$5 million (HK$35 million) in exports. Ouch.

Another complaint is that the card expires after three years, with each renewal process starting like you are applying for the first time and no credit for the previous three years of good business behaviour.

If it takes you three or four months to get the card in the first place, it often feels like you have no sooner got the card than you are queuing up to apply for a new one.

ABTC holders then also painfully discover that if their passport expires and they have to get a new one, then that "kills" the ABTC card and they face another three-month wait for a new card.

Different economies also treat the card differently. Some accept it as a visa. Some simply allow you to use it to get into a short diplomatic lane in immigration. So confusing.

So here in our Apec meetings - and I am writing this in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, at the first of the year's Apec senior official clusters of meetings - the ABTC still attracts passionate business attention.

And we have made good progress in the past year on two major breakthroughs: first, all 21 member economies have agreed to change the information on your ABTC card whenever a traveller changes his or her passport. So the ABTC will no longer suddenly die on you. Second, we are within inches of agreement to extend the life of the card to five years.

Most intriguing, our China Apec chairman this year is championing consideration of new cards - for example an Emergency Response Worker Card, and an International Worker Travel Card or an Overseas Student Travel Card - even an Apec International Tourist Card.

Quite how the last of these could be managed I frankly have no idea: the idea of giving the 40-plus million tourists that come to Hong Kong every year a travel card that gives them high-speed access through immigration strikes me as a very effective way of making a "fast" scheme very, very slow.

All fodder, no doubt for animated dinner table conversations for many years to come.

David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group