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Flights to lift off from China

The new scheduled service is the first for Hawaii

By Dave Segal

LAST UPDATED: 1:59 p.m. HST, Jun 16, 2011

Hawaii's long-sought goal to significantly tap into the lucrative Chinese tourist market is closer to becoming a reality.

China Eastern Airlines is planning to initiate nonstop, twice-weekly service between Shanghai and Honolulu on Aug. 9. The flights represent the first regularly scheduled service to the islands from the world's most populous country.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority said Wednesday it has been working with the airline and is awaiting final government and regulatory approval. Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said "it's expected to happen at any time."

HTA estimates that the new flight will generate up to $60 million in annual visitor spending and stimulate new growth in the islands.

"That's great for Hawaii," said aviation consultant Mike Boyd of the Evergreen, Colo.-based Boyd Group. "That's where the money is. That's where the growth is going to go. Plan on that twice a week turning into seven days a week over the next five years. The reality is Shanghai has more than enough people to fill an airplane to Honolulu seven days a week, not two."

Despite an arduous visa requirement that has limited Chinese traveling to Hawaii, the HTA projects 82,146 visitors will arrive in the islands this year — up 24 percent from 2010 — and spend an average $368 per person, per day, the most of any visitor group.

"This is opening the doors," said David Uchiyama, HTA vice president of brand management. "Gaining ease of access is the key."

"This is beyond important," Meisenzahl added. "This could be what the Japan market was in the '80s and '90s to Hawaii. We're talking about a billion consumers. This could give an incredible boost to the tourism industry."

China Eastern may be the breakthrough that Hawaii needs to open up that market, whose population in 2010 was 1.37 billion, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

"Prior to this, travelers from China were routed through Korea or Japan," said HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney. "Shanghai is a major Asian hub and we anticipate that visitors from all over China and other parts of Asia will utilize this route."

Shanghai-based China Eastern ran three charter flights to Honolulu between Jan. 30 and Feb. 20 that provided 777 air seats and generated an estimated $1.7 million in direct visitor spending. Uchiyama said the airline was encouraged by the response it received from those flights that took place during the Chinese New Year's.

China Eastern will operate a 322-seat Airbus 340 on the Shanghai-Honolulu route.

The addition of direct flights between China and Honolulu will undoubtedly help boost tourism in a key market, but the number of Chinese visitors likely will remain low until the U.S. eases its visa requirement. A Chinese citizen wanting to visit the U.S. must appear in person before a U.S. consul official to obtain a visa. With only five U.S. consulates in the country, that requirement can be a significant hurdle.

"Without the visa waiver program being in effect for Chinese citizens who want to be tourists in America, it's probably going to be difficult to generate enough business to make a lot of impact," said airline analyst Bob McAdoo of Prairie Village-Kan.-based Avondale Partners LLC. "Over time, though, if the Chinese government and the U.S. government decide to aid relations, and if this (the China Eastern flight to Ho­nolulu) is a first step that causes the visa waiver program to be applied to the U.S. for Chinese citizens, that would be great."

In November 2008, South Korea's inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program allowed Koreans to travel to the U.S. without a visa and boosted tourism to Hawaii.

Hawaiian Airlines, which began four-times-a-week service to Korea in January, sees the visa problem as a main drag on expanding to China. "Hawaiian remains very interested in serving China, but the U.S. visa regimen still presents a significant barrier to leisure travel to Hawaii and viable service for Hawaiian," said airline spokesman Keoni Wagner.

In 2009, China-based carrier Hainan Airlines began the regulatory process that it hoped would lead to either charter or scheduled service to Hawaii. It has been quiet of late, however.

"I wouldn't say they're completely out of the picture," HTA's Uchiyama said. "We continue to have dialogue with them but have not had any indication they're jumping into the market as of right now."

The first China Eastern flights will be sold through CTrip and U-tour travel companies based in China.

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