Teaching China Tourism

Is Hawaii helping a formidable competitor or ultimately developing a huge market?

May, 2002

The former dean of the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management was one of the first Westerners to go into China when the behemoth nation opened its doors in 1978. Chuck Gee says a business acquaintance that worked for Hyatt International in Hong Kong called him and asked if he would like to be the first educator into China.

“I said I would give, not quite an arm, but certainly I would give quite a lot to be there,” remembers Gee.

There was no tourism in China at the time. Full diplomatic relations with the United States had not been formalized. The group stayed in military “hotels” that had either been built by the Russians or had been private mansions that were confiscated by the Communist government during the Cultural Revolution. But Gee complimented the Chinese for recognizing the importance of human resources and training in order to build the nation’s tourism industry.

Gee says, “I think the Chinese were impressed by what we had to bring to the table. And they realized that it wasn’t just a simple industry where you could throw up a couple of hotels and say, ‘The doors are open. Please come.’”

Gee saw Hawaii as uniquely qualified to train the Chinese in the business of tourism. Twenty-four years and countless seminars and trips later, Gee figures that more than 1,000 people – with the ability to educate or influence thousands more – have received training in China from Hawaii tourism experts. To date, more than 400 Chinese have received training related to the tourism industry in Hawaii.

The Hawaii-based architecture firm Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo (WATG) also began exploring the China market in 1978. The company specializes in hospitality, leisure and entertainment design, and is projecting that $5 million of the Honolulu office’s projected $10 million in sales this year will be generated in China. Wimberly’s Senior Vice President for Hawaii, George Berean, says, “We’re at a point right now where we hope it sort of levels off after this year or it’s beyond the resources of this office to supply all the services, basically because we only have three directors who can generate the (China) business and we’re on the airplane half the time already.”

Berean says WATG is exploring opening up a representative office in Beijing. One potential project there is a 750-acre theme park that’s asked WATG for help in making it more viable.

China’s tourism industry is starting to do very well. China has entered the World Trade Organization and will host the 2008 Olympics. Tourists from around the world have been traveling there, including 2,383,700 Japanese in 2001, according to the Japan Travel Bureau. That’s 15 percent of the more than 16 million Japanese who traveled abroad last year and 875,720 more than the 1,507,980 that the JTB says came to Hawaii.

Taka Kono, the publisher of The Japan Report newsletter, says there are a number of reasons China is drawing Japanese visitors. The hospitality infrastructure has dramatically improved, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways are fighting for the routes to China, prices for European-brand copies are cheap and China holds nostalgia for older Japanese. “Hawaii does not have the possibility of going back to the No. 1 position for Japanese tourists,” says Kono. The state of Hawaii has been marketing tourism expertise to China in the last couple of years in a big way. Richard Bahar, business development manager for the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism, says there has been a tremendous return on investment for the state. Bahar says the state has been able to leverage an estimated $15,000 into relationships with huge tourism operators, such as the Beijing Tourism Group (40,000 employees) and the JinJiang Tourism Group, which employs about 9,000. “The potential gain for Hawaii is that we have a very high-value export product,” Bahar says. He says the University of Hawaii’s overseas training was valued at about $5 million last year, and he believes that number can be doubled.

Bahar says, “I don’t necessarily see China as a major competitor (for Japanese tourists). It’s different. Hawaii will continue to appeal to certain types of people. Hawaii doesn’t want to attract people looking for a cheap, short holiday.”

The Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau President and Chief Executive Officer Tony Vericella concurs. “We’re definitely not shooting ourselves in the foot by helping others and by sharing our expertise and our knowledge, because, after all, isn’t that part of the essence of who we are anyway?” he asks. Vericella maintains that Hawaii will get much more back in the end, much of that in the form of Chinese visitors to Hawaii.

Gee points out that our early entrance into China has created a great sphere of influence for Hawaii. Gee says, “If we consider that tourism is also a trade account, eventually while they may benefit by the things that they are exposed to in terms of our teaching, eventually, China is going to be a two-way tourism country as Japan became.”

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch