Eighty-year-old Zhensheng He had a new spring in his step after traveling to Hawaii to usher in the Year of the Rabbit in a warm climate.
He and his daughters, Gexin and Geli, were among 263 travelers who left cold temperatures earlier this week on the first direct charter flight from China to Hawaii. The Spring Festival package offered by China CYTS Tours, one of the country’s top three travel providers, was He’s first overseas trip.
"I always wanted to go somewhere overseas," He said through an interpreter. "I picked this destination because the U.S. is viewed as a very friendly place and Hawaii is a dreamland."
The direct flight that carried the He family was the first of three packed China Eastern Airlines charters that will arrive during the first quarter of 2011.
Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry and business community have been aggressively trying to grow Chinese arrivals since 2007 when the U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding made leisure travel from China possible. While there is a lot of interest in Hawaii from Chinese tourists, the lack of direct flights between China and Hawaii along with the difficulty attached to obtaining the required visa to enter the U.S. have tempered demand. Until now, tour operators have been hesitant to offer expensive charters since it was thought that the visa requirement could dissuade Chinese travelers from committing to a package.
The fact that CYTS, the tour operator, was confident enough to offer a charter could help expand Hawaii’s relationships with other carriers and travel providers, said David Uchiyama, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s vice president of brand management.
"I think they were pleasantly surprised at how fast these charters filled," Uchiyama said. "The success of these charters will help increase their comfort level about what this destination can drive in terms of business."
While in Hawaii, the Chinese visitors will be staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Sheraton Waikiki, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, Aston Hotels and Resorts, Ocean Resorts Waikiki, and the Hyatt Regency.
On Tuesday evening, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and other dignitaries greeted the Chinese travelers during a welcome dinner sponsored in part by Bank of Hawaii, DFS Hawaii, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii. Their visits may include tours to Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, Polynesian Cultural Center, Atlantis Submarines, Kualoa Ranch, the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the Big Island and Maui.
"It’s a very good test for the destination," Uchiyama said, adding that HTA gave China Eastern Airlines $30,000 to help market the flights.
After the travelers return home, the carrier and HTA will continue discussions regarding other charters and direct service, he said.
"The visa issue is still a work in progress, but the charter proves the sustainability of this leisure market," said David Charles, managing director for DFS Hawaii. "The demand is there; it’s just a matter of cutting the red tape."
China’s burgeoning outbound travel market and the spending habits of these visitors have made them coveted by destinations around the globe. Though the number of Chinese travelers coming to Hawaii is small, they spend the most money per day of any other travelers. Last year, Chinese visitors to Hawaii spent $357 per day, and this year they are projected to spend $368 per day.
Chinese visitor spending in Hawaii is so important that the state had to downgrade its spending projections for 2010 after Hainan Airlines failed to begin direct service between Beijing and Honolulu as earlier planned, said Daniel Nahoopii, HTA’s director of tourism research.
In 2010, only 66,048 visitors from China came to Hawaii, Nahoopii said. The hope of more charters is included in the HTA’s projection that 82,146 Chinese will visit Hawaii this year, he said.
Direct flights could double Chinese arrivals to Hawaii, said Bruce Bommarito, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.
"They are extremely important," Bommarito said. "Travelers like the convenience of direct flights and they give them more time at the destination."
Pengxiang Wang, a first-time visitor to Hawaii, proved Bommarito’s point. Wang, who had previously visited California; Washington, D.C.; and New York, decided to bring his wife to the U.S. for the first time after CYTS offered a six-day package with a direct, seven-hour flight.
"We usually go to Europe," Wang said. "But with a direct flight, this was really easy."
Chinese tourists made 57.4 million outbound trips in 2010, up 20.4 percent from the prior year and just shy of the 61.5 million overseas trips made by Americans last year. In another four years, China’s National Tourism Administration has estimated that outbound Chinese tourists could reach 84 million. By 2020, the World Tourism Organization has estimated that there could be 100 million outbound Chinese travelers.
Within the decade, the U.S. could be getting as many as 8 million visitors from China each year, Bommarito said. That’s more than the number of tourists the U.S. gets now from its top two markets — Japan and the United Kingdom — combined, he said.
Hawaii would benefit even if it captures only a small portion of this market, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii.