On October 2, the announcement of Taiwan’s membership into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was made by US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Starting next month, Taiwanese nationals can enjoy visa-free entries into the United States, said the State Department. This new status will give Taiwanese people greater convenience and confidence when traveling aboard.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Yung-lo Lin said that Taiwan has become the 37th country to join the American VWP, the 7th Asian country to get visa-free treatment, and also the only VWP member with no formal diplomatic ties with the US. Taiwan will reciprocate by raising Americans visa-free stay in Taiwan from 30 days to 90 days, starting November 1.
Minister Lin said that Taiwan will forge onward in negotiating with other countries which have not yet granted Taiwanese visa-free or landing visas, such as the Philippines, and Vietnam. Taiwan also hopes to improve the existing landing visa status with Indonesia as well.
Taiwanese will save US$30 million in US visa fees
Taiwan has long granted Americans visa-free entry and asked for the same from the US. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Taiwan’s efforts came to a standstill. In 2007, the US passed the Homeland Security Act stipulating new requirements. In order to be granted visa-free status, Taiwan started to promote the issuance of e-passports in 2008, which reduced the rejection rate of Taiwanese applying for US visa to 2.22 percent in 2009. This lower rate enabled Taiwan to be considered for the US VWP, which required a rejection rate of less than 3 percent.
After the 9-11 attacks, closer border control was instituted by US Homeland Security with more rigorous procedures in place in order to qualify for VWP. Taiwan’s inclusion in VWP affirms that the Taiwanese people are law-abiding citizens and indicates the island’s social progress. As such, the rejection rate of Taiwanese stipulated in the American VWP dropped to 1.9 percent in 2011.
According to estimates by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, joining the VWP will save about US$20 million in visa fees a year for the 400,000 Taiwanese visitors to the US. Based on the 1.5 times growth of Taiwanese visits to the United Kingdom after being granted the visa-free status, and similar growth of South Korean nationals to visit the United States after joining the VWP, it is reasonable to predict Taiwanese visitors to the US will grow to 600,000 and save a total of US$30 million in visa fees.
VWP brings considerable tourist revenues to US
According to the Taipei-based China Times, there were about 450,000 Taiwanese entering the US in 2011. Before the 9-11 attacks, Taiwanese visits to the US numbered more than 800,000 yearly. Therefore, there is room for growth in the number of Taiwanese travelers visiting the US after they gain visa-free entry.
Chen Shu-zhuan of Taiwan’s travel industry said that the VWP does not just save travelers the US$160 visa application fee per person, it also means that those people do not have to line up in long queues for interviews. It is a special relief for those who do not speak English, such as seniors. Potential visitors no longer need to be interviewed and the probability of their travel to US will increase substantially.
According to the Central News Agency, Luo Zai-ling, a Los Angeles-based businessman in the travel industry, commented that the visa-free program will increase the number of Taiwanese tourists traveling to the American West coast. The first wave of Taiwanese arrivals will peak at Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Chinese Lunar New Year in February 2013. From now to Chinese New Year, he estimates the initial influx of passenger traffic to increase 15 to 20 percent. He said that with sluggishness of the US economy in recent years, travel businesses have become heavily reliant on tourists from China. With Taiwan’s visa-free entry, the number of group visitors from Taiwan will grow, benefiting the local tourism industries.
Yu Guo-chen, who is active in the travel industry in Taiwan, said that the major Taiwanese routes are to New York-Washington on the East coast and Los Angeles-San Francisco-Las Vegas on the West coast. The travel agencies are expected to promote new routes with increasing visitors from the VWP. According to the Central News Agency, it is estimated that the new visa process will bring the US US$1.8 billion a year of tourist revenue from Taiwanese visitors.
Deeper meaning of VWP
The United Daily News pointed out that gaining visa-free treatment is one of the important policy indicators of the “flexible diplomacy” President Ma Ying-jeou has promoted since taking office in 2008. The mutual trust between Taiwan and the United States has been strengthened and bilateral relations are considered to be the best in the past 30 years. Moreover, the exponential growth of countries granting Taiwanese travelers visa-free entry is impressive, growing from 54 in 2008 to 129 today.
Even though Taiwan has diplomatic ties with only 23 countries, there are 129 countries, including the EU member states, granting Taiwanese nationals visa free or visa on arrival privileges. Meanwhile, China has diplomatic ties with 165 countries, yet only 32 developing countries grant Chinese visa free status. Even Hong Kong, despite its affluent society, does not have this status since it is a Special Administrative Region of China.
Seen in this light, entry into the VWP is a significant victory for all Taiwanese people. They can now travel around the world without difficulty just from holding a Republic of China (Taiwan) passport.
VWP helps boost Taiwan’s sense of security
The United Daily News stressed that the United States is Taiwan’s most important ally and trading partner. Considered to be a safe haven by many Taiwanese, the US is the most favored country when Taiwanese are “insecure” about the island’s future. With the shift towards an open door policy with the VWP, it should boost the confidence of the Taiwanese, and lessen the “sense of insecurity.”
Taiwan is the only non-diplomatic member in the VWP and in order to qualify, the island had to undergo a rigid vetting process. The areas assessed included: the risk of Taiwanese to remain illegally in the US, illegal workers, and those engaged in criminal activities. The rejection rate of mainland Chinese applying for US stands at up to 20 percent, while it remained at less than 3 percent for Taiwanese. Taiwan’s consecutive low rate for the last two years was one of the reasons it received VWP status.
In the past century, Taiwan’s external relations have been stymied under 50 years of Japanese colonial rule and Beijing’s diplomatic isolation. This has attributed to the “pathetic feeling” of the Taiwanese people for decades and their feeling of disempowerment. But judging from the 129 countries granting Taiwanese travelers visa-free treatment, it can be concluded that Taiwan has developed vitality through its non-diplomatic efforts and vigorous society to establish an international status and evaluation beyond the rigid traditional diplomatic framework. At this point, the people of Taiwan should abandon the unnecessary tragic image of “international orphan” and embrace the whole world, stressed the United Daily News.