While the nation continues to struggle from the recession, Hawaii has reason to be optimistic about recovery of tourism, the state’s economic engine. The Hawaii Tourism Authority forecasts the best year-end finish for visitor arrivals and spending in four years and can expect growth in tourism from China in future years.
Construction of the rail line between Kapolei and Ala Moana Center also can be expected to create local jobs and contribute to the recovery — but challenges to the design-build contract have halted that part of the process.
While the state searches for a third economic leg to join tourism and the military, the anticipated growth in the number of visitors is welcome, and sure to have trickle-down effects.
Arrivals reached highs in 2006 and 2007, when more than 7.6 million tourists visited Hawaii in each year. The visitor count plunged to 6.5 million in 2009 but rose to 7.1 million the following year and is now expected to rise to 7.3 million this year.
Spending by visitors is forecast to reach $12.6 billion, nearly as much as the record expenditure of $12.8 billion in 2007.
Tourism officials say the recovery was disrupted in March by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but not as much as expected.
Meanwhile, Seoul-based Asiana Airlines, South Korea’s second-largest carrier, plans twice-weekly charter flights between the Seoul area and Honolulu beginning in September.
All these are heartening signs of recovery and potential strength for Hawaii’s economy.
The growth in the number of visitors from Korea is due to the country’s 2008 inclusion in the visa-waiver program, which allows Koreans to visit America for up to 90 days without a visa. Hawaiian Airlines began four-times a week services to Korea in January and Korean Air operates two flights a day between Seoul and Honolulu.
Of greater potential as a visitor base is China. The first direct airline flights between Honolulu and Shanghai will begin twice weekly next month by China Eastern Airlines.
While a visa waiver under current policy is unlikely for China immediately, the rapid emergence of Chinese tourism and investments around the globe seems sure to prod changes.
The 30-member Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, created last year by the federal Travel Promotion Act, has asked that waiting time for visa in-person interviews in China — as much as 64 days in Shanghai — be reduced by doubling the number of posts in the country and hiring more officers to process visas. (That wouldn’t cost any tax dollars, since one officer generates $1.5 million in fees a year, based on a fee of $140 per visa application in China.)
Countries with visa refusal rates of 3 percent or less qualify for visa waivers. China’s refusal rates dropped from 24.5 percent in 2006 to 13.3 percent last year. However, the federal advisory board has suggested that the refusal cutoff rate should be increased to 10 percent, which is within China’s reach.
While some Americans might complain about dollars going to China in the form of purchasing of merchandise, the U.S. — especially Hawaii — can benefit from some of those dollars returning at an average of $300 a day spent by the increasingly prosperous Chinese visitor.