Visa waiver for Russians ending

AIRPORT: Travelers approach the U.S. Transportation Security Agency checkpoint at the entrance to the departure gates at the A. B. Won Pat International Airport in July 2017. A visa-waiver program for Russians is ending. Post file

President Donald Trump’s administration is ending the visa-free entry of Russian nationals into Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Northern Marianas Del. Gregorio Sablan announced Friday the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is rescinding the discretionary authority at the points of entry on Guam and the CNMI to allow Russians to enter without travel visas when entering for temporary business or leisure. 

This proposed change will be posted on the Federal Register by today, Washington, D.C., time, Sablan stated.

If finalized, this ends seven years of Russians’ visa-free entry into Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Only Russians are being taken off the visa waiver program, Guam Del. Michael San Nicolas said. The visa-waiver program also allows tourists from Taiwan, South Korea and other countries that are considered low-risk for overstays and national security to enter.

"The Russian visa waiver is a tool of American diplomacy to encourage mutually beneficial relationships with Russia," San Nicolas said. "As long as they insist on an adversarial posture with the United States, Guam will do its part, and we look forward to future normalization of relations and the restoration of a Russian visa waiver for Guam when appropriate."

In 2012, a revised visa waiver for Guam and the CNMI allowed Russians to enter Guam and the CNMI without having to apply for travel visas at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. The program that allowed Chinese tourists visa-free entry into the CNMI wasn’t extended into Guam, despite Guam tourism officials’ yearslong lobbying, for security reasons.

Russians currently can enter Guam visa-free and travel between Guam and the CNMI as nonimmigrant visitors for business or pleasure for a period of stay of up to 45 days.

In the initial years of the Russian visa-waiver program, tourism from Russia posted double- to triple-digit increases.

But the end of direct charter flights between Guam and Russia led to declining Russian visitor numbers. During a recent tourism forum on Guam, a Russian travel vlogger said it takes nearly 30 hours of connecting flights from Russia to Guam. The island’s Russian tourism arrivals have dropped from a few thousand a month to just a few hundred, Guam Visitors Bureau statistics show.

Guam has also seen increased applications for asylum from Russians who enter Guam as tourists.

Russian visitors were nearing 20,000 annually in 2015, but once direct flights from Russia stopped, arrivals plunged.

GVB reported that in fiscal 2017, there were 3,151 visitors from Russia. In the 2018 fiscal year, that number rose to 4,013.

A Guam Visitors Bureau board meeting last year discussed an emerging concern that Guam has become an open door for asylum-seekers.

As of May 2018, there were about 150 Russians seeking asylum on Guam, The Guam Daily Post files show.