As fewer Japanese visit, Hawaii officials look to China and South Korea for tourists

HONOLULU: Hawaii tourism officials are looking to China and South Korea to help offset continuing declines in the number of visitors from Japan, the state’s largest source of foreign tourists.

The interest in those markets comes at a time when the overall number of tourists to Hawaii is also declining. Nearly 7.4 million visitors came to the islands last year, a drop of 1.2 percent from 2006.

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While arrivals in January increased over the same month last year, the number of visitors in 2008 is expected to decline by 1.4 percent.

“I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on the fact that January is going to continue,” said Rex Johnson, head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

While January saw a surge in Canadian visitors, arrivals from Japan dropped by 5.2 percent. More than 1.3 million Japanese visited Hawaii last year.

Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison, said more Japanese visitors are not returning to Hawaii after their first trip in favor of new, cheaper destinations, such as Taiwan.

Increased fuel costs are leading to higher ticket prices, she said.

While state tourism officials are trying to increase tourism from Japan, they are also turning to China and South Korea.

South Korean tourist arrivals have been hovering at around 35,000 a year — far below the high of 123,000 in 1996.

Visitors from the country must currently apply for a visa in person at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul before they leave for the United States.

Short-term visitors from Japan and selected other nations, in contrast, may enter the United States without obtaining a visa in advance.

Tourism officials say they hope South Koreans will be able to do the same by the end of 2008 or the beginning of next year under a law signed by President Bush last year that allows more countries to qualify for visa waivers.

“We are very optimistic once Korea becomes a visa waiver country … that Hawaii will reap major benefits where tourism is concerned,” Wienert said.

She added that Hawaii also expects to see increases in visitors from China, where the islands could not actively promote themselves until recently.

But Frank Haas, assistant dean of the school of travel industry management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the Chinese face many obstacles in traveling to Hawaii.

They must apply for visas in person and don’t have convenient flights to the state, he said. He added that while the country has a growing middle class, it does not have the spending power of Japan.

“It’s just easier, less expensive and less of a hassle for them to go somewhere else,” he said.