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You Just Cannot Get Here From There

Where are the Chinese visitors to Hawaii?

Stephen K. Craven  Dec 02, 2010

They just can’t get here. That seems to sum up two excellent articles by Allison Schaefers for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, one about how tough it is for Chinese tourists to visit Hawaii, the other showing why Chinese business travelers shun our islands in the Pacific (as well as Las Vegas).

The reasons are prosaic enough. US visas are tough to obtain and expensive to boot. We don’t have direct flights between China and Hawaii. And the boondoggle factor plays havoc with business travel. But the interesting parts lie in the details – and in the reactions of my friends in Hawaii’s travel industry.

Schaefers highlights the cost of a US visa, both in money and in time. Chinese would-be travelers can’t get a visa unless they physically have an interview at the American embassy in Beijing or one of the consulates around China. Add to that the travel costs of anybody not fortunate enough to live near a US facility. And then come the US consular fees, adding insult to injury. Almost nobody’s visas are free anymore, but the US fees are at the luxury end of the scale. Xinhua Travel says that a Russian tourist visa costs US$29, Japan US$44, the European Union US$73, Australia US$117, but the United States tips the scale at US$220. And that’s with no money-back guarantee if you don’t get the visa. It’s like a lottery; you don’t get your money back if you lose, though perhaps only 10% do lose in the visa lottery. That said, visas can’t be the whole story behind Hawaii’s difficulties in attracting Chinese tourists. There are certainly many Chinese willing to brave the lines at consular sections to travel to other parts of the United States.

Schaefers rightly points out Hawaii’s competition for the sun, sand, and surf crowd. She says a three-night vacation in Hawaii might cost a Chinese visitor US$2,924 for airfare and hotel. Compare that to a seven-day vacation in Malaysia for US$548! And the flight is a whole shorter. I have friends in the industry who tell me that most Asian beach resorts offer better amenities than do Waikiki’s aging hotels. That certainly gibes with my experiences in Indonesia and Malaysia, though I am less positive about the Taiwanese and Vietnamese resorts I have seen. And some of Waikiki’s hoteliers are investing heavily in rebuilding and renovating the venerable tourist strip.

It’s debatable whether the lack of direct flights from China is a real stumbling block. Sure, everybody prefers direct flights, and Chinese tourists have direct flights to the Asian beach destinations. But a lot of travelers arrive in Hawaii without direct flights. It certainly doesn’t stop the thousands of European tourists who flock to Hawaii, despite changing planes, much longer distances, and next to no Hawaii promotion in Europe. A big thing was made by the outgoing Lingle administration (Linda Lingle is Hawaii’s governor – until next Monday) of plans by Hainan Airlines to start direct runs from Beijing to Honolulu. Somehow, it never developed and Hainan put a greater emphasis on launching service between China and destinations like Singapore, Hanoi, Phuket, and Bangkok – even Cairo. Hainan flies to Seattle and started service to Toronto this past weekend. Seems Hawaii is low on their list, but the politicians like to talk it up.

Waikiki’s evening entertainment has become staid and obsolete by Asian (or even Vegas) standards, which could be part of the problem. Travelers from North America, due to jet lag, tend to go to bed early and rise early, obviating the need for big time, big name entertainment. Australians have complained for years about the lack of evening entertainment in Waikiki, and my friends in the industry say this is one of the things that the Chinese are looking for – and not finding. Jet-lagged the other direction, they are looking for something (other than Korean bars) to do between 10 pm and 4 am. Waikiki doesn’t have it.

Another thing we don’t have is top notch Chinese food. Yes, there are Chinese restaurants, even a few in Waikiki, but the cuisine harks back to the days when Cantonese was all you could get because that’s where Hawaii’s Chinese immigrants came from. There are some good Chinese restaurants here, but not in locales generally visited by a Chinese tourist. We need good Chinese food from all the Chinese cuisines in Waikiki. The industry learned that during the Japanese boom years; they just need to relearn it for the Chinese. (Is it just me, but do our Korean visitors seem more willing to try other people’s food?)

Refreshingly, Schaefers spotlighted the budget decisions of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), the primary official marketing arm for Hawaii’s visitor industry, picking up on some themes previously explored here. She found that HTA budgeted $1,011,498 for China this year, but that overstates things. That includes money spent (some say wasted) on Hawaii presentations at the Shanghai Expo and travel for Hawaii VIPs to the Middle Kingdom. When you separate things out, the actual Hawaii marketing budget for China was $298,556. Compare that to the $21 million spent in North America or the $6 million in Japan, and China looks pretty small. You also have to compare it to the millions spent by destinations such as Australia and Canada in China. She said it was tough to find information about Hawaii at Chinese travel agencies. So, is Hawaii serious about this market? I don’t think so.

Where are the Chinese visitors to Hawaii?
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