updated 11/18/2008 1:58:10 PM ET 2008-11-18T18:58:10

The first of many South Korean tourists arrived in Hawaii on Monday under a new program that allows them to enter the United States without visas.

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About 800,000 Koreans visit the U.S. each year, and that number could double in 2009 because of the new program, said Austin Kang, co-chair of the Korean Visa Waiver Committee.

In Hawaii, the number of South Korean tourists could double to 80,000 next year and quadruple to 160,000 by 2010, Kang said.

"We have been waiting for this for a long time," he said. "Korea has been one of the strongest allies to the United States in the fight against communism, so Korea deserves this visa waiver."

The program requires visitors to obtain a new passport with an embedded smart chip, which U.S. security officials use to track foreigners whenever they use their passport during their stay. Anyone who gets this kind of passport is eligible to visit for up to 90 days.

Citizens from other countries, including Britain and Japan, are already eligible to enter the country without visas.

Some lawmakers in Congress have opposed extending the visa-waiver program because it could make the United States more vulnerable to terrorists and illegal immigrants

President George W. Bush decided in October to lift visa requirements for South Korean tourists to reward the country for being such a staunch ally, Kang said.

Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia also are being added to the U.S. visa waiver program.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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