Citizens from seven countries including South Korea can now travel to the U.S. visa-free for up to three months, and Georgia is gearing up for the expected increase in visitors.
As of Nov. 17, Korea and six Central and Eastern European countries – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic – joined 27 others already granted the special reciprocal status by the U.S. government.
While it maintains many security stipulations, the program takes away some common hurdles for travelers coming from U.S.-allied countries.
In non-visa waiver countries, businesspeople and tourists must pass an interview with U.S. consular officials to receive a visa, a hassle for those who live a good distance away from the U.S. Embassy or closest consulate.
Attracting tourists – especially big spenders from abroad – is vital to the Georgia economy. The industry accounts for 220,000 jobs in the state and tax revenue that amounts to $400 annually per Georgia household, said Kevin Langston, the state’s assistant tourism commissioner.
Korea, with nearly 50 million people, is the largest of the newly admitted countries and holds the most potential for Georgia.
According to the Commerce Department, more than 800,000 Koreans visited the U.S. last year, a 6 percent increase over 2006. That’s almost exactly twice the number of Chinese visitors, another group Georgia is ramping up efforts to reach.
Georgia anticipated Korea’s visa waiver entry and translated its tourism guide into Korean last month, Mr. Langston said. The state looks favorably on Korea as an inbound tourism market for a variety of reasons, he said.
Investments in Georgia like a $225 million Kumho Tire plant in Macon, the $1.2 billion Kia Motors plant in West Point and related parts suppliers have in effect given the state free marketing in Korea through the press coverage they’ve generated, he said.
And as far as travel goes, business travel begets leisure tourism, Mr. Langston told GlobalAtlanta.
“Tourism and business are inextricably linked. Wherever you see increased investment, you most likely will see increased tourism as well,” he said.
Atlanta is also in good position because of its air links to Korea. Delta Air Lines Inc. has nonstop service from Atlanta to Seoul, as does Korean Air.
Georgia tourism in the broader Asia arena also will get a boost from Delta’s recent acquisition of Northwest Airlines Corp., which has a hub in Tokyo that provides regional connectivity, Mr. Langston said.
“We’ve never had that kind of Asia reach before,” he said.
Yonni Kim, a Korea-born attorney with Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, said Korea’s inclusion in the program shows the friendship between the countries and could be a step toward passage of their pending free trade agreement.
It’s not that Korean executives have had trouble getting visas, but eliminating the requirement paves the way for a smoother exchange of people and goods, she said.
Chun Hae-jin, Korea’s new consul general in Atlanta, agreed.
“I am sure that the number of Koreans coming to the United States in general and to the Southeast USA in particular will increase greatly, at the same time increasing the contacts between the people of Korea and from this region,” Mr. Chun told GlobalAtlanta in a recent interview.
Mr. Langston said that Georgia is also interested in attracting visitors from the European countries admitted under the agreement, but budget constraints have forced the state to focus on larger markets like Asia.
John Parkerson, honorary consul for Hungary in Georgia and international programs director for Clayton State University, said there are probably less than a thousand Hungarian nationals living in Georgia, but a number of Hungarian students or prospective students would benefit from easy back-and-forth travel.
Like Ms. Kim, he believes the visa waiver status is a sign of good relations and said it was a high priority for the Hungarian government. Delta has flights to Budapest, Hungary, from New York, and it also has a Prague, Czech Republic, flight from Atlanta.
Mr. Parkerson, a former corporate counsel for Delta, said the new status could only help the Delta flights in the region. Delta announced last week in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it would begin trimming some capacity in 2009 due to decreased worldwide demand.
Mr. Parkerson wouldn’t project whether visa waiver program could make the Hungary and Czech Republic flights more resilient to capacity cuts, but said it’ll help the flights become more profitable and that he’s never seen Delta cut a profitable international route.