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Frequent international business travelers know well the often-tedious process of applying for visas and waiting in immigration processing lines, but while many companies accept these delays as inevitable, a program offered by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization may allow qualified travelers engaging in projects to skip the visa and directly enter participating countries. This year, the United States and Mexico both began to allow program members to take advantage of expedited immigration processing at airports, raising hopes that one day all 21 APEC economies might allow expedited or visa-free travel.
APEC sees visa and immigration delays as counter to the group's goal of free and open trade in the region, according to its Web site. In 1996, APEC launched a card program allowing pre-screened business travelers to enter participating countries, without a visa, as many times as they wish for stays of two to three months during the three years the card is valid. Since then, a number of APEC economies have announced full participation in the program, including Australia, Singapore and Japan, but such key countries as China and the United States have participated only on a limited basis.
There are strict requirements for obtaining the card. Applicants must show a need for frequent, extended-stay business travel to participating states and must have no criminal record. They are disqualified if they have been refused a visa to any of the participating economies. Approval takes one to four weeks.
United States immigration officials in early February and Mexican authorities last month both announced that participants in the APEC program could use airline crew and diplomat immigration lanes at major international airports. While cardholders still need a visa, buyers said the expedited immigration lanes are a benefit to frequent travelers.
Visa and immigration processes range from "too loose to draconian," according to Bruce Finch, senior manager of global travel services for software maker Autodesk Inc. In an e-mail to The Transnational, Finch indicated that the concept of the business travel card is "a great idea."
"As a business traveler myself, I feel the pain of waiting in long lines to get through immigration/customs and keep thinking to myself that I only want to get to my destination, conduct my business and return safely home," Finch wrote. "I can understand certain countries' reluctance to embrace this concept if they already have invested lots of money and time into their own processes."
The card was first offered on a trial basis in 1997 and permanent operations began in 1999. By the end of last year, more than 17,000 cards had been issued, according to APEC, with the possibility of replacing an estimated 1 million visas. Today, 17 economies participate in APEC: Australia, Chile, Brunei, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
While the United States and Mexico allow expedited immigration processing for cardholders, APEC considers them two of the four "non-participating" countries, in addition to Russia and Canada. However, all four countries have expressed interest in joining the program, according to APEC.
"I do see value in the APEC card--and more so if additional countries are added--given the immigration lines getting longer," said Dinesh Chauhan, regional supply market manager for Asia-Pacific travel at Philips General Purchasing, a procurement subsidiary of Royal Philips Electronics.
Some participating economies (Mainland China, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Brunei) do not allow foreign nationals to apply for the card, limiting its usefulness.
Though rapid expansion of the program is not expected, members of the APEC Business Mobility Group, which is in charge of the business travel card program, expressed optimism on future development during a January meeting in Canberra.
"The prospect of having all member economics on board is an exciting development for the APEC Business Travel Card. We still have a way to go yet but I think that we can get there," said Vincent McMahon, chair of the BMG, in a prepared statement issued after the meeting.
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