Residents upset US visa-free status continues to evade HK

Residents unhappy over US move to grant Taiwan visa-free status while denying HK the same right despite years of lobbying

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 3:11pm

Travel and business leaders have expressed frustration that Hongkongers continue to be denied visa-free access to the US, after it was announced that the privilege would be extended to Taiwan beginning next month.

"It's disappointing, because we've been asking for it for quite some time, and they still won't give it to us," Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Ya-chung said yesterday. "We behave well, never cause trouble and spend handsomely, so why do they give it to Taiwan and not Hong Kong?"

The Hong Kong government has for many years been lobbying the US government for admission to the list of countries on the Visa Waiver Programme where pre-approved, low-risk travellers can travel to the US visa-free for tourism or business for up to 90 days. The last discussion on the issue took place last November, when then Chief Executive Donald Tsang meet US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Taiwan on November 1 will become the 37th country or territory on the list, which includes the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It is the fifth Asian member, after Brunei, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong president Richard Vuylsteke said the chamber had also been lobbying the US State and Homeland Security departments for more than five years, the last time in June.

"It's not for the lack of trying," he said, adding that the process had hit some snags but was still on the table. He could not say exactly what the snags were.

"All of the reasons Taiwan was approved ... Hong Kong is also very strong in," he said. "My private speculation is they don't know how to handle mainland Chinese with [Hong Kong] resident status."

Vuylsteke said Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China was a special case. "Of course, Taiwan is not a one-on-one equivalent. It has a different kind of status."

The US consulate in Hong Kong said that because many factors were involved in qualifying for the programme, "we cannot predict the length of time it will take for Hong Kong to meet all of the requirements".

Vuylsteke, who was formerly president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, said the Taiwanese government had worked closely with the State and Homeland Security departments to iron out the kinks in the details.

A University of Hong Kong politics specialist said that by granting Taiwan the visa waiver, Washington was rewarding president Ma Ying-jeou's government for lifting its ban on US beef earlier this year.

Richard Hu, an associate professor from the University of Hong Kong's politics and public administration department, said the move would boost tourism from Taiwan to the US, but that the decision was more a politically motivated gesture than an economic-based decision.

"Hong Kong already has the 10-year multiple entry visa arrangement. Both sides don't [have] any urgency to upgrade it to the visa waiver programme," said Hu.

Last year, there were 128,512 Hong Kong visitors to the US and 131,712 the previous year.

US President Barack Obama had said earlier that the Taiwan move was to bolster tourism. Ma has been lobbying the US government since 2008 to make Taiwan part of the Visa Waiver Program.

Currently, 147 countries and territories grant visa-free access or visa-on-arrival facilities to HKSAR passport holders, according to the Hong Kong government. These include the US territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The government would not confirm when it began negotiating with the US on the waiver programme.