Beijing » When Beijing residents Benny Wang and his wife, Echo Zhao, want to vacation at the shore, they go to Korea where the access is easy.
The couple dream of visiting Hawaii; however, they are deterred by travel restrictions and costs. They are not alone. When it comes to building traction in China’s growing outbound market, Hawaii is a world-class destination with real-world obstacles.
While the Chinese outbound travel market grew to 40 million in 2009, only about 45,000 Chinese journeyed to Hawaii. Despite China’s phenomenal growth as leisure travel source market, Hawaii is expected to attract only 63,000 Chinese this year and another 85,000 next year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
"It’s really, really difficult to visit Hawaii," said Zhao, whose office at Pegasus & Taihe Entertainment International in Beijing is around the corner from the U.S. consulate.
U.S. policy requires that would-be visitors pass a face-to-face interview to get a visa to travel, Zhao said.
"Every day, I see them queuing up until 6 p.m.," she said.
During the interview, prospective travelers must show proof of financial stability, and a small percentage will be rejected even after paying for the visa, said Wang, who is the director of the international department for Xinhua Travel.
Assuming a would-be Hawaii visitor gets past the onerous visa process, the next impediment is the lack of a direct flight. Hawaii travelers must currently change planes in gateway cities like Seoul, Tokyo or San Francisco, said Ying Ming Qi, manager of the Meetings, Incentives and Conferences Department of the Outbound Travel Center for CITIC Travel Co. Ltd.
Flight times turn the average five-day Hawaii vacation into a three-night trip, she said.
"The top challenge right now isn’t the visa, it’s the flights," Qi said.
Hawaii’s distance from the U.S. mainland discourages all but the most wealthy, Wang said.
"Most Chinese will plan to visit America one time in their life," he said. "When they go there, they want to see a lot of America, and Hawaii is so far away (from the mainland)."
With so much uncertainty, it’s hard for travel wholesalers to guarantee that Hainan Airlines, China’s largest private carrier, or any other airline will provide seats to Hawaii, said Chuang Liu, manager of the America Department for ETI Holidays and Byecity.com.
While two or three companies have offered charters, the costs are generally too high, Liu said.
"Charters can cost up to $400,000 just for a single way," he said.
Getting permission to travel to the U.S. is more expensive than getting permission from competitive destinations:
Source: Xinhua Travel
Hainan Airlines had been expected to begin direct service between Beijing and Honolulu by the second quarter of this year; instead, the carrier is expanding flights to other destinations.
Hainan Airlines launched direct service between Singapore, Hanoi, Bangkok and Phuket earlier this year. The carrier, which recently began service to Cairo, Egypt, from Beijing, also has increased its flight frequency between Beijing and Seattle to four times a week. It starts direct service to Toronto on Nov. 27 and has discussed short-term plans to enter Sydney.
The company’s focus on new markets has prevented it from offering even direct charters to Hawaii. Joel Chusid, general manager for North America for Hainan Airlines Co. Ltd., said the carrier has not recently added any new Hawaii charters.
"We have the authority, but at this point there are too many open issues related to flying opportunities," Chusid said.
Getting direct air service to Hawaii from China was one of Gov. Linda Lingle’s top priorities. She made four trips to China to facilitate progress on outstanding issues and met with Hainan officials in Hawaii regarding their requests for discounted landing fees and other perks. Still, Lingle will leave the issue unresolved when her final term ends next month.
Chusid declined to comment on what breaks Hainan Airlines has gotten from other destinations, but he said airports as a rule often offer lower landing fees and other operational reductions and promotional funds.
While Hainan has been concentrating on markets other than Hawaii, Chusid said the carrier still wants to start its Honolulu service.
"It is not a dead issue," he said. We applied for the authority and received it. We are hopeful the challenges that remain can be overcome and allow the service to go forward."
Chusid said visa requirements remain a "formidable barrier to travel to the U.S." and "have some impact on Hawaii leisure traffic from China."
Travel to Hawaii is also difficult for Chinese travelers to afford, Wang said.
A U.S. visa runs about $220, he said. Chinese travelers pay about $117 to go to Australia, and it costs them about $44 for Japan, $29 for Russia and $73 for Europe, Wang said.
On top of the visa outlays, the average five-day, three-night Hawaii vacation costs $2,924 for airfare, hotel room and transportation, he said. In comparison, a trip to Malaysia costs only $548 for seven days including airfare, hotel room and transportation, Wang said. And, the flight takes only about six or seven hours as compared with at least 13 hours of travel to Hawaii, he said.
Two days in Hawaii costs the same as seven in Thailand, Wang said. And, Korea has grown popular because the $29 visa requires little documentation and can be procured in 10 days, Zhao said.
As a result, the U.S. ranks about seventh on the list of most popular outbound leisure destinations for Chinese travelers, he said. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, Japan and Korea are all more popular than the U.S., Wang said.
Even if Wang and Zhao or other travelers like them were to get past Hawaii’s visa and flight hurdles, the state’s reluctance to invest much in a challenged market is another key obstacle.
The HTA budgeted $298,556 on marketing to China this year as compared with $21 million for North America, $6 million for Japan, $700,000 for Oceania and $100,000 for Germany. While the HTA did allocate an additional $448,217 for the Shanghai Expo and $264,725 for airline/wholesaler co-op programs, Hawaii’s competitors are spending many millions courting the China market, said Liu, the Chinese travel agency manager and an HTA travel trade partner.
"Hawaii needs to increase its promotion budget for the Beijing office," Liu said. "Canada and Australia have much bigger budgets and run lots of (familiarization) trips to educate salespeople."
Posters of other destinations line the train stations and kiosks in retail centers, but none promotes Hawaii. Few brochures are available for distribution, and many Chinese travel sellers lack the information necessary to close a Hawaii sale.
As a result, most Chinese are relatively ignorant of the kind of experiences they could have in the isles. While a mention of the USA rings a bell with most Chinese, outside of the wealthiest circles the name Hawaii is met with head-scratching.
"Hawaii is only a dream," Wang said. "Most don’t know the most basic information about the destination."
The little information that Chinese know about Hawaii comes from coverage of celebrities, Zhao said.
"They see the pretty stories and want to follow them," she said.
Even those who work in the travel industry, like Wang, consider Hawaii to be primarily a sun, sand and surf and golfing destination.
"Another problem is that Hawaii is only the beach and golf," he said. "Only a few Chinese play golf, and most will only want to go to the beach for one or two days. What then?"
UP IN THE AIR
Flight times between Beijing and other tourist destinations are signifcantly shorter than to Honolulu. Hainan Airlines was expected to begin offering direct service between Beijing and Honolulu in the second quarter of this year, but so far the airline has not committed to a start date.