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Richard N. Velotta

Visa Restrictions Hamper Chinese Tourism

26 October 2005

Visa restrictions imposed by the federal government are preventing Chinese airlines from committing to nonstop flights between China and Las Vegas.

Airline executives from around the world are meeting in the city this week for the first-ever Las Vegas World Aviation Forum.

The conference has turned out to be more than just a three-day meeting for airline executives to hammer out solutions to the woes of an industry battered by a world of problems.

It affords huge marketing prospects for host McCarran International Airport, which is taking advantage of every opportunity.

And Chinese aviation officials are eating it up.

"This meeting lets them see the real Las Vegas," said Harry Kassap, administrator of market development for the airport. "The best marketing is the town itself. I've heard so many people say, 'I haven't been here for years, and I can't believe this town is what it is.' "

While leaders debate the survivability of an industry critical to Las Vegas' tourism fortunes, McCarran officials are reacquainting themselves with the executives who already have found their way to serving the city. They also are meeting leaders who play a role in the decision-making process for those carriers that haven't been serving the city.

"We've got representatives from Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic," Kassap said of the former, "as well as people from Air France, KLM, China Southern and Air China," he said of the latter.

But Kassap said much of the time spent by him and his McCarran colleagues is with the 20 Chinese delegates attending the event, which wraps up today.

The good news for Kassap and his associates is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of selling necessary -- most of the Chinese aviation leaders attending the conference are convinced that Las Vegas would be an ideal nonstop market from China.

The problem is an issue local tourism leaders have heard before: Visa restrictions by the U.S. government on Chinese citizens are preventing Las Vegas from being a lucrative market.

"Las Vegas would benefit hugely, hugely, hugely if some of these restrictions were lifted," said Zhihang Chi, general manager of Air China in Los Angeles.

Wang Zheng Hua, chair of the directorate of Spring International, a Shanghai-based airline, said through an interpreter that groups of Chinese citizens have been successful in getting approval to travel to the United States for business purposes, but getting the OK for a leisure trip is much more difficult.

Chi said his airline has the resources to operate jumbo jet flights between Las Vegas and Beijing or Shanghai, but under current visa policies, it isn't commercially viable. The airline's jets have the range to make such a flight, but Air China wouldn't be able to sell enough seats on such large jets to make the route financially feasible.

"We could make the flight with one of our (Boeing) 747s, but it may not be a profitable venture," Chi said. "We think that if the visa issue were resolved, it would be viable."

Chi said representatives of his airline have talked with officials with Japan Airlines, which flies a nonstop route between Tokyo and Las Vegas, and with Northwest Airlines, which pioneered nonstop travel between Asia and Las Vegas with a route to McCarran from Tokyo.

"They say it's not impossible (to offer nonstops that are financially viable)," Chi said.

It isn't the first time that the visa issue has been raised in connection with travel between China and Las Vegas.

Officials with the Nevada Commission on Tourism have said visa restrictions are the biggest impediment to establishing nonstop routes between the state and major cities in China.

Earlier this year during a tourism-building mission, Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, who heads the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said changes in visa policy are critical for the state to be successful in drawing visitors to Las Vegas.

U.S. government officials have said they are relaxing existing policies, but are proceeding cautiously with further reforms because they want to be certain that tourists who travel to the United States are not attempting to illegally immigrate to the country.

Nevada officials say thousands of Chinese who are financially capable of international travel are frustrated by the visa process, which requires setting an appointment several weeks in advance of travel and several hours of filling out forms and answering personal questions.

Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said the level of frustration for many potential visitors is high enough to discourage trips to the United States.