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Courting China


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POSTED: Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hainan Airlines, China's largest private carrier, seems to be on Hawaii time when it comes to introducing direct service to the islands; however, members of the state's hospitality sector are ready for the influx of visitors that direct service could bring.

The airline, which was expected to launch Hawaii weekly service in the fall, has pushed its dates back to the beginning of the first quarter or second quarter of 2010 at the latest, said David Uchiyama, vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

While tourism from China to Hawaii actually declined year over year to about 50,000 this year, isle tourism officials expect it will be a core market and as such have made significant investments, Uchiyama said. HTA recently approved $440,000 for the Shanghai Expo and another $447,000 to support Hainan Airlines, he said.

“;I think we'll see about a 45 percent increase in Chinese travelers once we get direct airlift,”; said Denise Torres, guest services manager at Ohana Waikiki East, who recently attended a Chinese language and culture training that was offered by Kapiolani Community College for employees of Outrigger Hotels & Resorts.

“;But, the Chinese are already coming here and we want to learn how to serve them even better,”; she said.

While Outrigger is the latest hotel chain in Hawaii to begin gearing up for the potential arrival of more Chinese visitors, others such as Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hawaii, Aqua Hotels and Resorts and Aston Hotels & Resorts have begun the process along with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau and the Hawai'i Convention Center. Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center and Ala Moana Center also are wooing the market. And, there's been support from state leaders, too.

Hawaii is taking a proactive approach to build upon its economic partnerships abroad and pave the way to greater investment and tourism in the state, said Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona Jr., who recently met with representatives from the China International Travel Service head office and the Beijing International Travel Service to promote travel to Hawaii and to thank them for supporting the Hainan flights.

Last month, Aiona, who is part Chinese, provided a blessing in Chinese and Hawaiian to 20 couples from China who got married in Waikiki at the Sheraton as part of a popular China-based reality television program.

“;The rapid growth of China's economy provides many opportunities for tourism and business exchanges that benefit both Hawaii and China,”; Aiona said.

Aston opened offices last year in China and hired a local sales team to convert interest in leisure travel into bookings, said Shari Chang, senior vice president of sales, marketing and revenue management for Aston Hotels & Resorts LLC.

Chang, who recently returned from the China International Travel Meeting (CITM), expects the market to reach major market status within five years and eventually surpass Japan.

“;The population alone makes it a very desirable market,”; she said.

Even smaller hoteliers like Aqua are getting in on the action by signing a global sales agent in China and sending its director of Asia sales to CITM where he was interviewed by the “;Xiang Hou Press,”; a government-run TV program which reaches millions of Chinese households, said Elizabeth Churchill, Aqua's vice president of sales.

Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center launched a Chinese Web site in September and is working with its merchants to accept China Union Pay Debit Cards, said Sam Shenkus, marketing director for The Festival Cos., which owns the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.

“;We are very excited about the long-term potential of the Chinese visitor market since their No. 1-preferred activity while traveling is shopping for items that are real products (not made in China),”; Shenkus said.

Ala Moana Center, which introduced a Chinese microsite on Wednesday, offers Chinese collateral to shoppers at its customer service desk, said Sharon James, regional vice president of marketing for General Growth Properties Hawaii.

“;We want to make sure that when they visit Ala Moana Center that they are very comfortable,”; James said.

As interest in China grows, there have been more inquiries for Chinese cultural and language training and assistance, said Jason “;C.J.”; Chen, who runs Hawaii-Day.com, a Web site that promotes Hawaii travel in China.

“;There is incredible demand from Hawaii companies to know more about this market,”; said Chen, who has added 20 major players to his client roster in a year.

Cultural and language lessons will help Hawaii avoid making mistakes with its Chinese visitors and hold its own over other competitive destinations, said Dave Erdman, president and chief executive officer of PacRim Marketing.

Recently, Erdman said he saw a high-end hotel restaurant greet a Chinese customer in Japanese and offer them a Japanese menu.

“;That's a big miss when we are priding ourselves on a certain level of service,”; he said. “;We need to show the Chinese and their tour operators that we are prepared.”;