HONOLULU (AP) — The number of Chinese travelers to Hawaii surged 43 percent during the first half of this year, making China the fastest growing market for the state's visitor industry.
But the organization that promotes Hawaii in China says this pace will lag if airlines don't add more flights linking the two places.
Hawaii Tourism Asia Managing Director Michael Merner told industry professionals at a tourism conference Friday that his organization is doing everything possible to encourage China Eastern Airlines to add a fourth regularly scheduled flight to Honolulu from Shanghai.
The company launched its first flight to Hawaii in August 2011. It plans to add a third in December, and may add a fourth in April.
Merner said China Eastern's flights were 97 percent full last month. There's no question the airline will add flights, he said. It's just a question of how quickly.
Hawaii welcomed more than 49,000 visitors from China in the first six months of 2012. That's a sharp increase from the previous year, but still few compared with the state's largest foreign market, Japan. More than 600,000 visitors from Japan came to Hawaii in the first half of the year.
Merner said Hawaiian Airlines now has sales agents in Shanghai and Beijing. He said Hawaii Tourism Asia also was encouraging Hawaiian to test the waters by operating some charter flights next year.
Chinese people also are spending more time in Hawaii than they used to because more often they're coming to visit for entire week, not just stop in Hawaii for two to three days on their way to or from the U.S. mainland.
Merner said the agency planned to double the number of Chinese visitors to the neighbor islands, noting only about 15 percent of Chinese are visiting the Big Island and 13 percent are going to Maui.
Though Chinese travelers already spend the most per day of any visitors to Hawaii — more than $370 on average in 2011 — Hawaii Tourism Asia plans to have them spend even more.
Merner said the goal for 2013 is to lift average daily spending for Chinese to $400.
"It's more than three times what a Canadian visitor would spend here in the islands," Merner said.
The increase is possible, he said, because the state is targeting the wealthiest travelers.
"There are more than 76 million Chinese who travel outbound per year," he said. "We're taking literally the very, very top of that market — those who can afford to fly long-haul, Hawaii only, and spend significantly while they're here in the islands."
Over time, Hawaii will market itself to the Chinese mass market, but Merner said there aren't enough flights and airplane seats for this right now.
Hawaii Tourism Asia is a contractor for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state agency that promotes the islands to the world.
The tourism authority is funded by a tax on hotel room fees and other short-term rental charges in Hawaii.