Hawaii is competing with California, Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, and other U.S. tourist destinations for a vast and largely untapped new market segment: Chinese travelers.
To be a Chinese tourist these days is to be a widely sought traveler.
Hawaii has beaches and its famed "Aloha spirit" as its siren call. Las Vegas offers gambling and its entertainment-oriented attractions. San Francisco, California, can boast high-end shopping, a flourishing Chinatown and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Beset by one of the worst recessions in decades, the U.S. tourist destinations are spending significant sums on marketing campaigns in China's most populous regions and are urging U.S. Embassy officials and Chinese airlines to ease logistical burdens of flying to the United States.
The payoff could be substantial, particularly in Hawaii, the closest U.S. destination to China.
At least for now, however, Hawaii is more difficult for the Chinese to reach by air than the other locations, and thus is drawing fewer tourists from the already lucrative and growing Chinese economy.
"It could be huge" for Hawaii, said Ted Sturdivant, who has long published a Hawaii travel guide for Chinese, Japanese and other foreign tourists.
Attracting more Chinese tourists "will bring back a lot of jobs" to Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle said recently, after returning from a tourism and economic mission to China.
About a half-million Chinese traveled to all U.S. destinations last year, and that number is expected to grow by double digits in each of the next four years mainly because of China's growing economy and new wealth, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Tourism officials note that the Chinese middle and upper classes each rivals the size of the U.S. population, so luring just a fraction would produce huge numbers.
"Everybody looks at China and sees a country with 1.3 billion people and a growing economy, and they say, ‘Oh, my God, it's the greatest travel market that ever was,’" said Frank Haas, an instructor at the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii.
Hawaii's tourism market has generally been propped up by two regions, the U.S. West Coast and Japan. Both market segments declined this year, as did the number of Chinese visitors, despite a late 2007 Chinese-U.S. agreement to lift some travel barriers.
To lure the Chinese, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has budgeted almost $2.7 million this fiscal year for marketing there and in Korea, said David Uchiyama, HTA's vice president of marketing. That includes $447,000 to participate in the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, which begins in May.
For the Chinese traveler, however, preparations for a trip to the United States still can be a hassle. Only the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and four consulates, mostly on China's eastern coast, handle visa applications, which require in-person interviews. However, traveling in groups, which tourism experts say Chinese prefer, can ease those impediments.
Then there is the problem of getting to the United States. There are nonstop flights from Beijing and other Chinese cities to popular U.S. destinations, but Hawaii is not among them. Traveling to Hawaii usually means a stop at busy Narita Airport outside Tokyo.
That could change next year if China-based Hainan Airlines follows through with plans to begin flying to Honolulu from Beijing nonstop. Even so, Hainan at first will fly only once a week to Hawaii. In comparison, Japan has about a dozen daily flights to the islands.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority also is eying Hainan, said John Bischoff, a vice president with the organization. The authority may be interested in a deal in which Hainan passengers stop in Hawaii on their way to Las Vegas or during their return to China, he said.
The Chinese tend to travel to the United States for multiple weeks, so it is to the advantage of U.S. tourism officials to cooperate on tour packages and travel agent training, Bischoff said.
However the Chinese get to Hawaii, the islands are counting on them not to be frugal. Chinese travelers spend more than counterparts from any other country, about $7,200 per person per trip, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
But Hawaii's tourism industry knows it needs to make the islands more culturally inviting to the Chinese. Many hotels, restaurants and retail stores have offered Japanese-speaking clerks for years, along with signs and menus in Japanese. Such aid is infrequently provided in Mandarin.
At the request of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Kapiolani Community College, just outside the tourist hub of Waikiki, has begun offering classes in basic Chinese phrases and customs to travel industry employees.
"What we're really doing with China is sort of just scratching the surface a little bit deeper ... and (trying) to get to the level of comfort we presently have with our Japanese visitors," said Barry Wallace, executive vice president for Outrigger hotels.
California drew 237,000 Chinese visitors last year. State and local tourism officials are meeting counterparts in China and offering new travel packages that brand the Golden State as a "dream destination."
Las Vegas' marketing efforts focus less on gaming, since the Chinese can travel easily to the Chinese administrative district of Macau for that, said Bischoff. Instead, Vegas highlights entertainment and sightseeing attractions, including the Grand Canyon Skywalk 122 miles away, which was built by a Chinese-American businessman.