By Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Yi-Shen Chou has spent more than 30 years in the U.S., first as a motel operator and now as a Monterey Park, Calif., retiree who enjoys line dancing and computer games.
His family — a half-dozen brothers and sisters and numerous nieces and nephews — remains in Taiwan. Occasionally, Chou reunites with them on one side of the Pacific or the other, but for the most part, he is alone here.
Chou, 71, may soon be able to see his relatives more often. Starting Thursday, Taiwanese citizens will no longer need a visa to visit the U.S., eliminating a cumbersome and expensive process that deterred some people from making the trip at a time when few Taiwanese are seeking to settle here permanently.
The reaction from mainland China, which normally opposes any granting of diplomatic benefits to Taiwan, has been muted, with a spokesman saying the change will not have much of an effect on cross-straits relations.
Taiwan will join countries such as France and Germany in a visa waiver program that the U.S. government reserves for nationalities that it deems pose little security threat and that are not major sources of illegal immigration.
Taiwanese travelers will no longer have to wait in line at the U.S. Consulate in Taipei or pay a $164 fee and convince an interviewer that they will return home. The visas were good for short-term stays within a five-year period, but some people never braved the initial hurdle.
“I’m really very happy for Taiwanese citizens. This is really a huge step forward,” said Chung-Chen Kung, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles. “Taiwanese citizens all have a lot of friends, relatives and classmates in the United States, especially in Southern California.”
The Taiwanese government projects that the number of visitors from the island may increase from 400,000 to as many as 600,000 a year, a boon for local hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and amusement parks.
The visa waiver also represents a rare diplomatic victory for Taiwan, which at China’s insistence is not officially recognized by most countries.
Citizens of the 37 visa waiver countries, which include Japan and South Korea, can stay in the U.S. for 90 days after filling out an online travel authorization form and paying a nominal fee.
To qualify for the program, a country must meet a list of security-related requirements, including border control standards and low rejection rates for visa applications. The U.S. government may withhold approval, even if all the criteria are met.
In an Oct. 10 speech, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou called the visa waiver a “big vote of confidence” that “enhances mutual trust at the highest levels of government.”
China hopes to join the visa waiver program, but “it’s not a one- or two-day thing,” said Xing Lei, a spokesman for the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Los Angeles.
“We hope that the U.S. and both sides of the Taiwan strait can have a one-China policy,” Xing said. “If the territory of Taiwan and the United States move toward more openness in tourism, trade and commerce, we welcome that.”
These days, newcomers to the San Gabriel Valley’s Chinese enclaves east of Los Angeles are more likely to hail from mainland China than from Taiwan.
The number of immigrant visas issued to Taiwan-born applicants fell by more than half in the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of State, while those granted to China-born applicants went up by nearly 20 percent.
With Taiwanese posing a low risk of overstaying their travel visas, allowing them to bypass a time-consuming application process makes sense, some say.
“Nobody wants to stay here, so why not open the gates?” said Roger Hwang, 57, a native of Taiwan who teaches the Taiwan Center dance class and came to the U.S. in 1991. “Opening the U.S. gates for Taiwanese is good.”
The Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board is projecting an increase this year in Taiwanese visitors of about 25 percent, up from the 89,000 who visited the city in 2011. Taiwanese visitors spent about $179 million in the Los Angeles area in 2011, according to board estimates.
Chou’s older brother has been waiting until the visa waiver program gets under way to book a ticket to California.
“It’s a big help that they can come to the U.S. and see me. I’m really happy. I really welcome it,” Chou said in Mandarin during a break from a dance class at the Taiwan Center in Rosemead.
Mei Yu usually takes her daughter to spend the summers in Taiwan with their large family. Now, with the visa waiver in effect, those relatives plan to come to Southern California instead — mainly so they can scope out the merchandise at U.S. malls. Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and Hollister are the brands of choice for the younger generation. For Yu’s sister, it’s Coach and Chanel.
“They were too lazy to come. Now, they can come any time. There will be a lot of them coming,” said Yu, 51, of Hacienda Heights, who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years.