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Direct route to China delayed

Hainan Airlines, China’s largest private carrier, was expected to begin direct service to Hawaii by the second quarter of this year; however, plans have stalled, and the state has begun to eye new prospects.

Hainan’s announcement in July 2009 that it planned to offer weekly nonstop scheduled service between Honolulu and Beijing was met with great fanfare by Hawaii’s travel industry, whose members were told that service could begin in the fall of 2009.

Hainan has given state officials and tourism leaders inconsistent messages, said Brad DiFiore, director of Airport Consulting Services at Sabre Airline Solutions.

"I’d like to think that if they went to the trouble of announcing it and applying that they intend to follow through. But at this point we don’t have a firm answer," DiFiore said.

Joel Chusid, general manager for North America for Hainan Airlines Co. Ltd., said he has not had any route updates from China in the last six months.

In June, Gov. Linda Lingle said Hainan had all of the needed approvals but was working out details such as landing fees. Lingle said Chinese airlines are used to getting a break on landing fees from some countries but that that was not possible in the United States.

Chusid said the chief reasons for the delay were "visa issues" and "tour operators who were hesitant to guarantee enough business to make the route profitable."

On average, potential Chinese travelers will wait 57 days to receive a U.S. visa, and some 30 percent will be rejected, said C.J. Chen, chief executive officer of BCM International, a Web design, translation and marketing company working closely with Hawaii’s visitor industry.

"This hurts Hawaii," Chen said.

Since Hawaii needs direct flights to grow the China market, state and tourism officials are recruiting other carriers, said Michael Merner, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Asia, a marketing contractor hired by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "We need direct airlift from China to break the market open," he said.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority expects 63,300 visitors from China this year and 85,000 next year.

"It would be higher if we got the projected (Hainan) flight," Merner said. "It’s our No. 1 strategic priority."

Lingle, who will leave office in December, said earlier this week that she wants to make another trip to China to work on getting direct flights for Hawaii.


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