A policy change that will enable U.S. and Chinese citizens to visit each other's countries repeatedly for a decade — 10 times the length of a current visa — is expected to spur more of the tourism and investments from China that have mushroomed in recent years.
The change, announced by President Obama in a visit to China this week, means that Chinese tourists and business executives now holding one-year passes to enter and leave the U.S. can get multi-visit visas for as long as their passports are valid, up to 10 years.
Students from China are seeing their visas extended from one year to a maximum of five years.
Obama, who plans to overhaul the U.S. immigration system this year by executive order, extended the visas in response to requests from American business leaders who have been trying to open trade channels between the two countries.
The policy was applauded by airlines and tourism officials, who said it would lead to greater spending by Chinese travelers and businesses. In particular, Chinese business owners looking to buy Southern California homes probably will step up their already robust purchases, experts said.
"They are so excited for this," said San Gabriel Valley mortgage banker William Chen. "They feel the American door is open."
He predicted the visa changes would give Chinese investors greater confidence to invest across the U.S. and would help transform an often cumbersome approval process into a quicker, more straightforward one.
Tourism officials said Chinese visitors are the fastest-growing overseas group — and the biggest spenders — traveling in the U.S. More students come here for education from China than any other foreign nation.
Last year, about $21.1 billion in spending was injected into the U.S. economy by 1.8 million Chinese tourists, and the number of visitors is expected to jump 21% this year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The visa policy in the U.S. could mean as many as 7.5 million Chinese visitors by 2021, bringing an estimated $85 billion to the economy, a White House statement said.
"This policy move will harness the colossal and growing Chinese travel market for the direct benefit of U.S. job creation, exports and economic growth," said Roger Dow, chief executive of industry trade group U.S. Travel Assn. "The effects will be both strong and immediate."
He noted that overseas visitors spend an average of $4,500 per trip while Chinese visitors spend $7,200 per visit, the largest of any country.
United Airlines Chief Executive Jeff Smisek said the move will boost demand for air travel between the two countries.
"As a global company with an important China route network, we support agreements that simplify travel and remove obstacles for our customers," he said. "China is a fast-growing economy and this agreement will open up travel that will drive economic benefits in the U.S."
The changes extend Obama's efforts to promote increased exchanges between the two nations.
In 2007, when the U.S. government began issuing visas to Chinese tour groups, Chinese visitors to the United States totaled only about 1,000 a day. That has now increased to about 6,000 each day.
It's difficult to predict how much additional investment will result from the visa changes, said Clayton Dube, head of USC's U.S.-China Institute. But the "hassle factor," he said, will be greatly reduced for visitors, who previously had to document every year that they had a valid reason for the travel, funds to complete it and a job, family or business to return to in China.
"Your average tourist is not going to come here once a year for 10 years," he said. "But for a business person coming here it will vastly simplify life — and that will facilitate greater investment."
In Hong Kong, a cross-border investment lawyer said closer commercial ties inevitably would follow "once you have more people traveling in and out of both countries for longer periods of time."
"The world is one big, connected marketplace," said Simon Chan, a partner with the law firm Dorsey and Whitney.
Chan said the biggest bump might be seen in increased commercial real estate purchases by Chinese investors.
"We are already seeing mega deals being negotiated and made in New York, L.A. and Chicago," he said. In providing easier travel to the United States, he said, extended visas will likely "drive up private equity investments both at a personal and institutional level."
At Juwai.com, China's largest international real estate website, visa regulations have been "one of the biggest stumbling blocks" for Chinese buyers of U.S. real estate, said Simon Henry, co-chief executive of the company.
"On Juwai.com, articles explaining how the visas work receive just as much traffic as articles about real estate markets and investment strategies," Henry said in an email from Brisbane, Australia, where he was attending a meeting of the Group of 20 leading economies worldwide.
"We are rolling out new content as fast as possible to explain the new rules," he said.
Henry said the new five-year student visas could have an even bigger impact than the new 10-year tourist and business visas because wealthy Chinese are buying homes for their children while studying here.