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StarBulletin.com

Encouraging tourism from China well-timed


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POSTED: Monday, November 02, 2009

The embryonic stage of Chinese tourism to Hawaii is being met with an enthusiastic forecast. U.S. and Chinese tourism officials signed an agreement this month in Florida and Gov. Linda Lingle left Friday for a two-week visit to China to promote Hawaii as a destination. Numbers associated with Chinese outbound tourism merit such a effort. Now is the time to start cultivating big growth-potential sources of state revenue.

Only two years ago, fewer than 23,000 Chinese, including those from Hong Kong, visited Hawaii, compared with the nearly 1 million from Japan. Chinese visitors to the islands last year reached nearly 60,000, and those numbers should surge in the near future.

The average Chinese visitor spends $324 a day, more than those from any other location, says Marsha Wienert, Lingle's top tourism adviser. Visitors to the U.S. from China spend an average of 23 nights and $7,200, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The spending reflects the wealth of China's new upper middle class and the rising level of the yuan against the dollar.

Visa restrictions have hampered the potential of significant gains in U.S. tourism from China, but those are loosening. In June 2008, the U.S. and China began allowing increased group leisure travel.

Tourism officials from 30 Chinese provinces and 23 American states attended a two-day conference in Orlando, Fla., and agreed to continued cooperation in expanding tourism. China recently expanded international tourism marketing from six provinces to 21.

Lingle's six-city trip is to include meetings with Hainan Airlines, which recently won approval for at least one weekly nonstop flight from Beijing to Hawaii. The first flight is expected early next year, and the airline plans to increase the service to three flights a week, if the demand grows as expected. Hainan now flies four times a week to Seattle.

Also this month, the U.S. House approved a bill that would create a public-private partnership to promote U.S. tourism destinations throughout the world. The Senate approved a similar bill in September but procedural rules require another Senate vote before it is sent to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.

The legislation would create a fund capped at $10 million, combining federal funds with matching amounts from the private sector. The promotion is expected to increase foreign visitors to the U.S. by 1.6 million a year, each spending $4,500 on average.

Increased agreements with China and future promotion is likely to bring dividends to Hawaii's presently struggling tourism industry. Lingle's promotion of Hawaii in China is well-timed despite some criticism to the contrary. While the issue of Friday Furloughs for school teachers continues to boil, Lingle can do little with the issue in court - except to stay on top of the situation via communication lines.