Passports For Economic Growth

From thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., and from our own Kona coast, comes promising news for Hawaii’s visitor industry.

On Capitol Hill, the Senate money committee is poised to approve the Department of State’s appropriations bill, a measure containing provisions to enact visa reforms that will enable the agency to hire more consular personnel in certain countries, including China, in order to cut the visa processing time to no more than 30 days. Another provision would waive the interview requirement for prospective travelers who are renewing their visas. The third proposal would give the State Department the discretion to conduct visa interviews by teleconference.

In Congress this visa waiver proposal has garnered support from both sides of the aisle, as well as from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, state and city travel organizations, and others. While the bill has an arduous path to follow before it is finally approved by both houses, there are hopeful signs that Congress will put its imprimatur on these badly needed systemic reforms to stimulate greater foreign travel and bolster our economy.

And while we wait for Congress to act, the State Department has been moving ahead by adding more consular staff to speed up visa processing in China and Brazil, but the additional staffing has apparently been insufficient to meet demand.

I’ve been calling for these visa reforms for some time, first during my stint as director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, then during my tenure as Honolulu mayor and U.S. Conference of Mayors tourism and arts chairman, and now as head of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association through our national affiliate, the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, our nation’s inefficient visa approval process has taken a steep toll on our competitiveness in wooing foreign travelers. If we had kept pace with other nations in this regard, the U.S. economy would have welcomed 78 million more travelers over the past 10 years, and they would have generated $606 billion in revenue and created more than 467,000 jobs. The USTA further claims that recapturing the 17 percent market share we’ve lost would add 98 million more visitors, create 1.3 million more jobs by 2020, and inject nearly $860 billion into the U.S. economy all at very little cost to taxpayers.

Meanwhile, over in Kona, the China-U.S. Tourism Leadership Summit held Sept. 24-26 drew government and tourism officials from China, the United States, Hawaii and elsewhere to push for similar changes in U.S. visa policy. It’s clear that China can be a huge new market for Hawaii, but federal policy restrictions have limited the growth of travel from that country. Visa reforms are high on the list of recommendations proposed by the delegates.

In the mid-1990s, we eased travel restrictions from friendly nations such as Japan. Hawaii has experienced the benefits of this change. More recently, entry requirements were lessened for travelers from Korea, and we’re seeing an increase in visitors from that nation. There’s no reason we can’t expect the same from China.

Let’s face it: Chinese visitors will go elsewhere if they don’t feel welcome in the United States. In my current position, I’ve been advocating for some time a pilot project for China, with Hawaii serving as the point of entry. After a demonstration of a year or two, we would evaluate the results. I’m confident, based on the Hawaii experience, Washington would be able to forge a travel policy with China that would assuage many of the concerns that exist today.

We need to strike a reasonable balance between hospitality and security. Tourism is the first, second or third leading industry in most major American cities. It’s Hawaii’s top revenue-producer, and there’s no reason it can’t thrive

MUFI’S VISITOR HEROES

Lydia Ornellas

Position: Server
Location: Grand Hyatt Kaua’i Resort and Spa

An accountant by training, Lydia Ornellas decided early in her career that a desk job wasn’t for her. That decision was the Hyatt’s gain as Lydia began working at Hyatt Regency Waikiki before transferring to the new Grand Hyatt Kaua’i three years later.

Since then, she’s been a standout employee, embodying the Hyatt’s service principles. She remembers the names of hundreds of guests and, in the process, is a key reason for their return visits. Lydia puts her considerable experience and knowledge to work as the lead trainer for new staffers. She also makes a lasting impact on co-workers, who laud her for her efficiency, generosity, work ethic, humility and team spirit.

Naturally, Lydia Ornellas’ personnel file is filled with complimentary letters and messages from Hyatt guests, who sing her praises and attest to the qualities that make her an exceptional member of the Grand Hyatt Kaua’i team.

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