China Eastern Airlines, the carrier that brought the first direct charter flights from China to Hawaii last month, has taken the next step toward offering regularly scheduled nonstop service between the destinations.
China Eastern Airlines
» Founded in 1988
China’s second largest carrier has applied with the administrative body of the People’s Republic of China for permission to operate direct flights between China and Hawaii, Michael Merner, managing director for Hawaii Tourism Asia, told members of the visitor industry yesterday.
The Shanghai-based carrier took the step after successfully partnering with China CYTS Tour Holding Co., one of China’s leading tour operators, to bring about 777 visitors here on three inaugural charter flights during the Chinese New Year holiday, Merner said.
"They sold out these flights in just 14 days," said David Uchiyama, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s vice president of brand management. "They would definitely like to come back."
The carrier would still need to obtain permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin the service. Merner said the airline also plans additional charters this year.
Members of Hawaii’s visitor industry and business community who heard the news at a spring marketing update at the Hawaii Convention Center were pleased. They have been trying to expand Chinese air service since 2007 when the U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding made leisure travel from China possible.
"There are over 170 cities in China with over 1 million visitors," said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia. Vieira said he is looking forward to welcoming President Hu Jintao at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November. "We are looking at it (China) as a market with huge potential based on sheer volume."
While there is a lot of interest in Hawaii from Chinese tourists, a lack of direct flights and a difficult visa process have tempered demand.
Arrivals from China would grow if leisure travelers who wanted to visit the islands could fly nonstop, said Benny Wang, director of Xinhua Travel’s international department in Beijing.
Even with these impediments, Merner said that China’s outbound travel to Hawaii grew 57 percent last year to 66,047 arrivals. This year, arrivals are expected to grow another 16 percent, he said.
"Hawaii is outperforming all other major overseas destinations in the China market," Merner said. "Visas are getting more predictable."
Direct air service will only make the market stronger, he said.
However, Uchiyama said its hard to determine whether China Eastern’s plan will take off.
"We’ve been here before," he said.
Hainan Airlines, China’s largest private carrier, was expected to begin direct service between Honolulu and Beijing in 2009, but postponed plans.
The state then began eyeing new prospects.
"We’ve been talking to China Eastern for some time," Uchiyama said, adding that the carrier’s dominance in the market and its connections with the Chinese government, a majority owner, could help it overcome challenges. State tourism officials have also discussed direct routes with China Southern and have continued to seek a start date from Hainan Airlines, he said.
Joel Chusid, general manager for North America for Hainan Airlines, has said that "visa issues" and "tour operators who were hesitant to guarantee enough business to make the route profitable" were among the chief reasons for the delay.
The success of the charters may help bridge that hurdle, Vieira said.
"China is heavily wholesaler dominated," he said. "If they have confidence that they can book the business, the airlines will be confident."