Shanghaiing the Chinese

May, 2002

It’s not going to take force to get potentially millions of Chinese to travel to Hawaii. It’s not even going to take better marketing. It’s simply going to take more air seats, according to Henry Ou, president of the Hawaii Chinese Tourism Association and for his travel agency, Air & Sea Travel Center Inc.

“I do 800 to 1,000 people a month, but the thing is I think I can do at least 1,500 to 2,000 people if we have enough seats. Because there are many more that want to come, but in the end they cannot, because they can’t find affordable airfares or they just cannot get the seats,” Ou says.

No Chinese carriers fly direct to Hawaii yet. It hadn’t seemed profitable until recently. The problem is compounded by the fact that getting a visa to come here can still be an arduous process.

According to the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism, the average Chinese visitor in 2001 spent $195 a day. That was the second highest amount after the average Japanese visitor, who spent $235.

The chairman of China HNA Group, which owns China’s fourth-largest airline, Hainan Airlines Co. Ltd., would like to alleviate the airlift problem. “I wish to one day open direct flights to Hawaii,” says Chen Feng, who held an HNA board meeting in Hawaii in late March. He says he already has the plan in his head and would like to expand upon a visa pilot program for pleasure visas to Hawaii. According to the HVCB, some Chinese visitors have been arriving since the beginning of the year with “For sightseeing in Hawaii,” on their visas. Chen says, “I think if we can set up this tourist channel we can make a scheduled charter flight here using my Boeing 767. Hainan Airlines can make a scheduled charter flight direct from Beijing and Shanghai.”

Chen estimates that the minimum number of annual Chinese visitors to Hawaii, once things get rolling, would be something like 50,000. But, he notes: “We have a lot of problems we have to resolve, like visa, designing training programs. We begin step by step. … I don’t like it to take so long. I do everything really quick.”

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch