ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Members of the inaugural group of leisure travelers from China to Hawaii gathered around Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday to capture their welcome on camera and video.
If we market, they will come
A Chinese tourism expert says Hawaii can do much to lure visitors from China
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Hawaii welcomed its first 160 leisure visitors from China earlier this week and is projected to see arrivals from that country double within the next two years, but it is going to take more money and work to make that happen.
There is already vast competition for the Chinese travelers' business, especially from Oceania and Southeast Asia.
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Pent-up demand for Hawaii among Chinese leisure travelers, who tend to favor sun, sand and surf vacation destinations, could result in a doubling of visitor counts for the state, but more marketing is needed, and obstacles such as a lack of flights and visa requirements must be addressed.
That was the opinion of Hong Zheng, who serves as chairman and president of GZL International Travel Service Ltd., China's largest outbound travel agency.
Zheng was among the first group of 160 Chinese dignitaries and visitor industry professionals from Beijing and Guangdong to visit Hawaii since a memorandum of understanding allowing Chinese visitors to make leisure trips to the United States became effective this month. He said his clients see Hawaii as a dream destination.
"There will be huge potential for Chinese tourists to come to Hawaii because Hawaii is one of the most famous spots for holidays around the world," said Zheng. The state could see an uptick in visitors as early as next month when the first of China's national holiday periods begin, he said. August, October and January and February are other key traveling times, Zheng said.
"China's visitor count to Hawaii could reach 110,000 visitors in the next year or so, but it's going to take cooperation," he said.
While Hawaii stands to see the number of Chinese visitors increase substantially with the easing of travel restrictions, barriers to travel still include visa requirements, fingerprinting of foreign travelers and the lack of direct flights. Rising fuel costs and Hawaii's lack of air capacity have also become issues in positioning the state as a preferred Chinese leisure travel destination.
The state could have hosted another 80 visitors from Shanghai as part of the inaugural visit, but San Francisco received them due to a shortage of seats, said Charlie Shao, president of Los Angeles- and Hawaii-based Galaxy Tour, which handled the land operations for China's first official U.S. leisure tour.
"It's still tough to get air seats," said Shao. "However, those that came to Hawaii were very impressed with the quality of the destination and the welcome that they received, especially from Gov. Linda Lingle."
Hawaii is working to mitigate challenges in the China market, said Hawaii Tourism Authority President Rex Johnson. Last week, HTA staff went to China to prepare for the visit and advocate for further ease of access and nonstop scheduled seats, Johnson said.
Hawaii's investment in China will be well worth the effort, Zheng said. Chinese travelers, especially those from prosperous Guangdong, are already traveling in droves to other destinations, he said.
"Guangdong people have a habit of spending their holidays by the sea," Zheng said, adding that the Maldives as well as Thailand, Indonesia, Bali and Australia are popular leisure destinations for these travelers.
Chinese leisure travelers who want to visit the islands will find a way to combine two- to five-day stopovers in Hawaii with their trips to Narita, Tokyo or connecting cities on the U.S. mainland, he said. Charter flights may also be an option in the future, Zheng said.
"Our company offered chartered flights to Australia this spring and they were very successful," Zheng said. "I believe that if we offered them to Hawaii they would be 100 percent full."
With proper promotion, high package prices or distance likely won't deter Chinese travelers, Zheng said.
"The Chinese economy is becoming very strong and the living standard is high," he said. "We have people who are rich enough to afford an expensive tour to Hawaii and the price is comparable with a trip to the Maldives during peak season."
However, tourism agencies throughout the world, especially in Oceania and Southeast Asia, are vying for China's tourist trade, Zheng said.
"We hope to establish a cooperative relationship with Hawaii to promote the destination," he said. "If we work together, the results can be seen."