Exotic travel ban: U.S. limits visa waivers for hundreds of millions of Chinese tourists

WASHINGTON — The U.S. is placing new restrictions on travel to South Africa, other African countries, and Japan for more than 200 million Chinese tourists and business travelers, the State Department announced Monday.

In a memo posted online, the department said the new measures were in response to what it called China’s “unprofessional and unhelpful behavior” during the South China Sea dispute between China and several other countries, including Japan and the Philippines. The memo also noted that some Chinese emissaries have spoken disrespectfully of South Africa.

The new measures come as South Africa seeks to boost tourism, making it a potentially lucrative source of revenue for the struggling economy. Business leaders said the visa requirement would hurt the country.

South Africa’s president urged Chinese tourists to reject the proposal.

“If they seek us as a destination, we will enjoy a significant share of your hearts,” said Jacob Zuma.

But Derek Hanekom, the head of South Africa’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he doubts the ban will affect trade between China and South Africa because many of the Chinese coming for business travel already obtain visas.

A Visa Waiver Program, which lets Chinese citizens travel to the U.S. without visas if they buy tickets and stay for six months, has been in place since 2002.

“Without this visa waiver program, we would not be able to attract the Chinese tourists,” Hanekom said. “We need Chinese tourism to go up. It’s a real windfall if we can provide cheap, timely visas.”

The most common form of travel paperwork for Chinese citizens is a one-year visa.

The visa waiver program that allows Chinese citizens to travel to the U.S. without visas was signed in 2002 and allowed citizens of 50 countries to visit the U.S. without visas for up to 90 days.

The U.S. extended the visa waiver program to other nations when the 90-day limit expired in 2014, and many Asian countries, like Japan, South Korea and South Africa, also joined.

As more countries joined the program, it became easier for China to argue that it has the right to deny visas to citizens from those countries. In September, China issued 444,000 visas to non-Chinese nationals during the 90-day period — a total that nearly matched the number of visas issued by the U.S. during the same period.

Although Chinese President Xi Jinping extended an olive branch to U.S. President Barack Obama last week, which was largely seen as a signal to avoid further disputes during the Xi’s visit to Washington, the visa restrictions will almost certainly fuel those disputes.

The travel restrictions range from an outright ban on travel to South Africa to a 10-year ban on travel to India. No ban has been placed on the U.S. but the memorandum listed 42 countries that were subject to a “further review.”

The 42 included India, South Africa, as well as Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, and Kuwait.

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