comscore HTA begins marketing the islands in Southeast Asia
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HTA begins marketing the islands in Southeast Asia

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    An aircraft operated by AirAsia X Bhd. stands in front of a Malaysian Airline System Bhd. aircraft on the runway before taking off at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, on Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Hawaii is starting to market itself to travelers from Southeast Asia.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority this year hired a contractor to promote the state in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Together, the four countries have a population of 468 million people.

The push comes amid plans by Malaysia-based low-cost carrier AirAsia X to begin flying to Honolulu from Kuala Lumpur. The Hawaii Tourism Authority expects the route to launch during the first half of next year. No airline currently operates direct flights to Hawaii from Southeast Asia.

Kelvin Ong, who is leading Hawaii Tourism Southeast Asia’s marketing efforts, told industry representatives at a meeting Tuesday the region offers huge opportunity for Hawaii’s tourism industry. The biggest challenge is that people there don’t know what Hawaii has to offer, he said.

The four countries being targeted vary greatly. The city state of Singapore has just 5.5 million people but is among the world’s richest nations with a per capita gross domestic product topping $56,000, according to the World Bank. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous nation with about 250 million people. Its per capita GDP is the lowest of the four countries at about $3,500.

Currently, Malaysia and Singapore combined send about 9,000 travelers to Hawaii. Ong said he aims to double that next year, even if AirAsia X doesn’t start flying Honolulu route.

The numbers are small compared with visitors from Japan, which sends more tourists to Hawaii than any other foreign country. About 1.5 million travelers from Japan came to Hawaii last year. More than 178,000 travelers from South Korea and over 160,000 visitors from China came to Hawaii last year.

Ong said his group plans to promote Hawaii as a “dream destination,” emphasizing hula and other aspect of the state’s rich culture. They also plan a campaign promoting Hawaii’s food offerings that it will build around a Malaysia gourmet festival.

Ong said Malaysian and Singaporean travelers to the U.S. spend a large chunk of their money on food. Eating makes up the second and third biggest items on their budgets, he said. They love to eat local food while traveling, he said.

“We won’t go to McDonald’s. We want to try the local cuisine,” he said.

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