BY SEAN BAHAR – The start of direct flights from Shanghai to Honolulu is welcome news for Hawaii tourism industry officials still recovering from the impact of the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami as well as state’s persistent economic downturn.
These flights – will be the industry’s first real glimpse of the developing Chinese tourism market – are being operated by China Eastern Airlines from early August 2011 through January of 2012. The Hawaii Tourism Authority is expecting the state to welcome over 80,000 Chinese visitors in the islands for the year 2011.
The rising number of Chinese visitors is welcome news to Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Mike McCartney. He believes that Chinese tourism could be a huge boost to the tourism industry, which accounts for nearly $12 billion of the state’s gross domestic product and an estimated 150,000 local jobs.
On average, Chinese visitors spend more money than visitors from any other location – an average of $340 a day. That compares to the $280 and $150 visitors from Japan and the U.S. West Coast spend respectively spend on average.
“The China Eastern charter flights alone will bring in an estimated $60 million, which means the state can expect around $8 million in tax revenue from Chinese visitor spending,” McCartney said.
But Hawaii still has its challenges in the visitor industry sector. McCartney says the U.S. visitor industry as a whole is still underperforming when it comes to bringing in foreign travelers.
“The primary challenge facing the tourism industry here and around the country is the ability for foreign visitors to obtain U.S. visas. The visa process for a foreigner from a country like China poses a hurdle to potential tourists,” McCartney said.
The U.S. State Department has imposed stricter visa regulations in the decade since 9/11, but McCartney and others in the industry are hoping that the coming APEC conference being held here in Hawaii in November will help to relax current regulations. President Obama himself has said that his hope is that we as a country can “introduce Asia to America.”
“The current issue holding the industry back is diplomatic in nature, and has to do with the U.S.-China relationship. Rather than throw stones at what people did in the past we should move on and systematically see how we can improve the situation so that foreign visitors can come and visit,” McCartney explains.
Many in the industry have voiced concern that the current regulations prevent the U.S. from fully capitalizing on it’s tourism industry, an industry that is considered an export and one of not too many industries in the U.S. that actually aids in reversing the trade deficit.
“We can recoup some of our trade deficit from China by allowing the Chinese to come here and spend their money. We already know that there is demand and we know they will spend money, so what we need to do is allow them to come,” says McCartney.
The state has been spending money on promoting Hawaii as a destination in China. Over $500,000 is being spent on programs that will support travel and airline companies in bringing Chinese to Hawaii. These programs range from social media advertising to holding conferences that educate travel agents abroad on how to sell Hawaii as a destination to potential visitors.
McCartney emphasizes that Hawaii does have a competitive advantage over other destinations both within the U.S and abroad.
“It’s Hawaii’s people, place, and culture that continually brings people back to the islands. That is what makes Hawaii different. Visitors come and realize that Hawaii is more than just sun, surf, and sand. They experience that Aloha Spirit and realize,” says McCartney.
The first flight of the China Eastern Airlines charter arrives on August 9. There will be 50 flights as part of this August through January charter.