Home / World Economy / World Economy News / For all of Apec’s talk of lowering trade barriers, its single biggest success is removing visas for business travellers in the group

For all of Apec’s talk of lowering trade barriers, its single biggest success is removing visas for business travellers in the group

Of all the plastic cards in my wallet, perhaps my most treasured is the Apec Business Travel Card (ABTC). It’s a close run between that, and my green Octopus card for senior residents.

The ABTC is precious not just for the time and money saved in getting visas, but for the guilty pleasure it gives at that unfriendliest of points in every international journey – the immigration queue – when I slip across into the diplomatic line.

Arriving in Atlanta last week, it saved me at least an hour of listless waiting at the end of a long and exhausting flight from Seoul. I could almost feel the gnashing of teeth behind me.

The only point in the past 15 years that using the ABTC had backfired me was arriving in Auckland in New Zealand, where for quaintly politically correct reasons, cardholders had to join the queue reserved for diplomats, aircrew and families with children.

For the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum, now almost 30 years old, the travel card is still the single most tangible evidence of the group’s success. No matter how much Apec talks about reducing barriers to trade, both at and behind borders, this is the achievement business travellers seem to treasure the most.

And there can be little doubt that it has contributed to enhancing trade growth around the Asia-Pacific region. The Nikkei Asian Review has calculated that business travel has grown at twice the rate of the rest of the world as restrictive visa regimes and cumbersome processing have been tackled.

In its own right, business travel – which the Global Business Travel Association says accounts for almost a quarter of international travel – involved around US$1.33 billion in spending in 2017, with China leading (US$346 billion and growing at 9 per cent a year), followed by the US (US$292 billion).

Created by Apec’s little known Business Mobility Group (BMG), which spends most of its time talking about border security, the ABTC was a creative response to constant complaints about the complexity and hassle of getting visas.

I wish the group had made similar progress in harmonising the varied electronic security systems they use: how can information-sharing and security collaboration against bad guys be helped when one country records index fingers, another records four fingers, or, as in Hong Kong, the thumb?

From 58,000 ABTCs in use in 2009, there are 270,000 cards today, and the number would be much larger were it not for arcane rules applied by some governments that limit eligibility.

I don’t know whether the story is apocryphal or not, but several Australian traders have complained about their government’s insistence that an applicant had to demonstrate direct credit for exports of at least A$5 million (US$3.5 million). No one else among Apec’s 21 member economies has considered such a silly literal rule, but still the criteria for eligibility in some economies remain complicated and obscure, and the time taken to get a card tests the patience of many.

Frustration is voiced most loudly among US and Canadian business travellers – the two economies that remain the final holdouts against the card as a substitute for a visa. This must have stuck in the craw, particularly in 2013 when Russia finally became a full member. Thanks to US Homeland Security rules, there still seems no prospect in sight of North American business travellers capturing the advantages of the ABTC.

For any regular business traveller, the time saving is huge, from not having to apply for visas, and the savings in fees can be considerable. As someone who travels perhaps 15 to 20 times a year across Apec, I tried to calculate the savings, and arrive at close to US$1,000 a year.

But the arcane complexity of visa rules and fees make accurate calculation challenging. Do you want a single-entry or multiple-entry visa? Do you want for 6 months, or a year, or 10 years? The US has 19 different types of visas depending on your status (a student?) or purpose of visit.

And fees and rules vary depending on where you are from. Some of the happiest business travellers I know are Germans or French who would normally never be allowed access to an ABTC, but who become eligible once they have been based in Hong Kong for seven years.

The ABTC still has its shortcomings. It was a great help when the card’s duration was extended from three years to five, and there has been some improvement in the time it takes to complete the application process (all 21 Apec economies must provide separate approval, normally taking several months).

But the card’s durability needs working on (my photo quickly faded on my first card), and the wide differences in eligibility need to be tackled.

That was why the BMG, meeting last week in Santiago at Apec’s first cluster of Senior Official meetings in Chile’s chairmanship year, committed to improvements.

The first and best step might be to consider new categories of travel card. Most frequently demanded has been a special Emergency Responder card that can be used by aid and rescuers after natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunami.

But there has also been talk of an Apec Student Travel Card, so far resisted because student visas are often abused as secret surrogates for work visas, and even an Apec Tourism Travel Card, which is a daunting thought given the millions of cards that might have to be issued.

As the privileged long-time owner of my ABTC, there is one very selfish reason for caution: the more cards issued, the more people can slip across from the main immigration queue and into my always-short ABTC line.

It is sometimes nice to taste privilege and preferential treatment, especially at the end of a long air journey.
Source: South China Morning Post

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