Those of us who grew up in Hawaii know how beautiful our islands are. The sunlight that makes the blue-green waves sparkle, the perfect temperature with trade winds gently moving the palm trees, and the perfume of flowers in the air are all ingrained in our minds. Without a doubt, we are profoundly fortunate to live here.
Our natural, diverse environment and Aloha Spirit draw millions of tourists each year from across the globe. Visitors come to Hawaii for family adventures, business meetings, once-in-a-lifetime vacations, and large professional gatherings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which was held in Hawaii in 2011.
From the tropical rainforests of Kauai and sun-and-fun beaches of Oahu to the natural beauty of Maui and our nation’s only active volcano on Hawaii Island, Hawaii has much to offer.
It is because of our environment that tourism is our biggest industry and job creator, and Hawaii is focused on making our state a destination for new visitors. This includes diversifying our tourism profile by drawing more visitors to neighbor island hotspots, expanding ecotourism, and implementing commonsense solutions to promote travel throughout the entire state, rather than just the typical tourist spots.
One commonsense solution that Hawaii’s tourism industry has benefitted from is Brand USA, a non-profit, public-private partnership dedicated to creating international travel to the United States. From the United Kingdom to Japan and Brazil, Brand USA promotes the unique culture and geography that Hawaii offers to international markets and travelers.
As incomes rise and the middle class grows in Asia and elsewhere, more people than ever are looking for new leisure destinations. Hawaii is in a prime location to take advantage of expanding international markets in Asia and across the globe.
However, if international travel is too much of a hassle, people won’t be inclined to do it more than once, if at all. In fact, in many foreign markets, demand for trips to Hawaii is unnecessarily restrained by the United States’ restrictive and lengthy visitor visa process.
Legislation to expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is an incredibly important and commonsense solution to grow and promote travel to Hawaii, as well as the rest of the United States. Cutting red tape in the visa process, while ensuring the security of the U.S. homeland, is essential to making sure the country is well-positioned to take advantage of new markets.
The VWP is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and allows pre-registered nationals from 38 countries, including many countries in Western Europe, as well as Japan, Australia, and others, to visit the United States without a visa. Countries who participate in the VWP must also agree to follow strict security guidelines. Expanding the VWP is needed to keep our entire nation’s tourism industry competitive.
Throughout my 30 years in public service, I have been a strong advocate for growing the VWP. When I was Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor, I testified before Congress in support of South Korea’s successful bid for VWP membership. The VWP’s positive effect on tourism across our entire nation, is an economic fact. Unfortunately, some in Congress see the program through partisan lenses and argue to scrap it. That posture is shortsighted, to say the least, and I will continue to advocate for improvement and expansion of visa waivers.
When it comes to bringing this debate to the forefront of legislative meetings, the voices of hoteliers are vital, and I encourage those in the lodging industry to share the effect that international visitors have on their communities and businesses with their members of Congress.
Hoteliers understand what’s at stake if we reduce international travel. Across the country, we saw the devastating impact 9/11 had on global travel. We’ve also seen how growth from foreign visitors has been a key driver of the industry during a fragile economic recovery.
We can’t afford to close our borders. Instead, we should work together to ensure that the VWP continues to benefit our country by keeping us secure, creating jobs, and making our country the world’s premier travel destination.
Mazie K. Hirono is a U.S. Senator from Hawaii.