In the coming years, as the gateway between China and Hawaii continues to open up, tourism experts are expecting an enormous influx of visitors.
“It’s the market that everybody’s been talking about,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “Asian markets have all seen huge increases in the last two or three years. And I think we’re going to see 100-plus percent increases year over year for China over the next couple of years.”
Birch added that while the growth of the market will be tremendous, it still has a long way to go before catching up to the numbers put up by mainland and Japanese tourists.
For instance, in a report issued this month by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state brought in more than $2.7 billion from Japanese visitor expenditures in 2012, up from $2.1 billion in 2011, and $1.9 billion in 2010. By comparison, Chinese visitors accounted for just $277 million in spending last year, $178 million in 2011, and $127 million in 2010.
However, while the Japanese market took nearly 20 years to reach where it is today, Chinese tourism could follow the same pathway, but at a much quicker rate, Birch said.
“It’s going to start a lot like our Japanese tourism boom,” he said. “It will start with group tours. There will need to be Chinese speaking tour coordinators with them, because it’s easier to package tours with them. It may be a few more years before we start to get a lot of independent Chinese travelers. … We may get up to 50 percent of the level of the Japanese market is in a short period of time. … The timeline is going to be a much shorter timeline. Instead of 20 years, it’ll be only four or five years of getting the same saturation, once they’ve gotten the green light to go.”
For now, the majority of Chinese visitors to Hawaii are focused on Oahu, with about 95 percent of all Chinese visitors going there in 2013, between January and October, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Hawaii Island came in second place, with 16 percent of all visitors coming to the Big Island. A total of 14.4 percent visited Maui, and 2.7 percent visited Kauai.
The number of visitors to Kauai remains the lowest, according to the HTA report, “mainly due to lack of Chinese speaking receptive tour operators and tour guides on that island.”
Helen Koo, owner of Hilo’s Nani Mau Gardens and California-based travel agency America Asia Travel Center Inc., said that in the past year and a half, she has invested over $8 million in East Hawaii, largely in response to the growth of Chinese tourism here.
“Ninety percent of our clients are people from China,” she said Tuesday. “Yearly, we probably have about 100,000 visitors come to the U.S. from China.”
About five years ago, she began offering five-nights-and-six-days package tours to Honolulu. But, as hotels began to become more expensive, and it became more difficult to book stays there, she expanded to offering tours to Hilo, with travelers spending two nights in Honolulu and three nights in Hilo.
“Since 2012, when I went to the Big Island, I fell in love with Hilo,” she said. “I decided I wanted to bring all my passengers here for three nights. … A lot of Chinese people like warm weather, but they don’t like having the big sun in Kona, and they don’t like swimming a lot. So we bring them to Hilo.”
Guests on her tours visit areas like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls, Richardson Beach Park, the Mauna Loa macadamia nut farm, orchid farms, and Nani Mau Gardens.
In May 2012, Koo purchased Nani Mau with the intent of fixing the property up and including it in her tours. She said she has also purchased a number of homes in East Hawaii as VIP getaways for her clients, and has entered as a partner into purchasing the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort.
“That’s something Hilo needs,” she said. “More Chinese people want to come there. It is always highly recommended, but in Hilo there is not so much good hotels. We need more options.”
While accommodations are a big part of attracting more tourists, getting them here is another big concern.
On Monday, Air China celebrated the inaugural flight of its new, three times weekly Beijing-Honolulu nonstop service. The new route will offer an additional transfer option to travelers from Europe and the Middle East bound for Hawaii, according to a market update in the January newsletter of Hawaii Tourism China. Meanwhile, other new international services that Air China will soon introduce include Beijing-Chiang Mai and Beiing-Siem Reap routes.
“These new services will make it easier for passengers from neighboring countries to travel to other parts of the world, including Hawaii, via Beijing,” the newsletter states.
Meanwhile, China Eastern Airlines recently added two more flights to Honolulu, providing a total of five weekly flights out of Shanghai. And in April, Hawaiian Airlines will launch its own Beijing-Honolulu direct nonstop service.
“These flights will have a huge impact for us,” Koo said. “I’m expecting my business in Hawaii to grow by 30 percent this year.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.