Aloha China! (Ready or not...)

Perhaps you've never heard of Pingxiang or Dongying, but you can be sure people there have heard of Waikiki. If Hawaii's visitor industry has its way, travelers from cities like these (both of which have more people than the entire state of Hawaii), and megacities like Shanghai and Beijing will soon be vacationing in Hawaii.

What has been the stuff of dreams for years is finally starting to bear fruit with the potential to knock the slippers off Hawaii's tourist industry. Ready or not, the future is now.

To bend a popular phrase, George Clooney and The Descendants are "big in China" as is Jurassic Park 3D. Although much of Hawaii remains relatively unknown in China, that will change as Hawaii's relationship with the Middle Kingdom evolves.

Last year, 116,000 Chinese people visited Hawaii. Still small compared to 1.4 million Japanese people and almost half a million Canadian visitors for the same period, but David Uchiyama, vice president for brand management with Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) points to 43 percent year over year growth in Chinese travel to Hawaii. Even at half that rate, we could be looking at a very different visitor industry well before 2020.

Uchiyama is bullish on China, saying several factors -- easier to obtain visas, increased air capacity and a favorable exchange rate -- make Hawaii more attractive to first time Chinese visitors.

"Over the past year they've made huge strides in increased inspectors to help the visa process," Uchiyama says. For would-be visitors, the three to six month process of getting a U.S. visa has been reduced to a couple of weeks.

Limited direct flights, a huge hurdle in growing the Chinese market, are increasing as East China Airways' three times weekly direct Shanghai to Honolulu service is scheduled to increase to five times a week by the end of this year. Furthermore, on the heels of launching direct flights to Taipei, Hawaiian Airlines announced plans to begin direct flights between Honolulu and Beijing from April 2014.

"The potential is enormous," Uchiyama says, but stresses the importance of achieving better distribution to neighbor islands and remaining conscious of the islands' carrying capacity.

Uchiyama describes how the nascent Chinese market, like Japan's in the early years, shows outsized spending patterns compared with more mature markets. He points to a group of Chinese tour operators visiting Hawaii as an example.

When asked what they were bringing home, they all answered "iPhones". One person bought five, another bought four. A favorable exchange rate, confidence that what they were buying was not counterfeit, and a long shopping list from friends back in China meant even a small group of 25 was enough to drain the Waikiki Apple store's inventory and send them to Ala Moana for more.

Last year, Chinese travelers to Hawaii outspent other visitors by as much as two and a half times (compare US West $152/day vs. $310 for Japanese and $396 for Chinese).

Enormous Potential

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the Chinese are the world's biggest travel spenders and overwhelmingly the fastest growing tourism market. Some 100 million Chinese people are traveling abroad at any given moment with a million visiting Paris alone each year. And while Chinese tourists have been traveling to Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, Canada, South Korea and Japan for a decade or more, the U.S. still lags behind, largely due to the lengthy visa process.

Christine Lu, co-founder and CEO of Affinity China, a company that specializes in travel networking for luxury Chinese travelers points out that Hawaii's relative late discovery by Chinese tourists can work to its advantage. As word spreads of new direct flights and an easing in obtaining U.S. visas, experienced travelers weary of a sixth or seventh trip to France or Thailand may want to give Hawaii a try. "You can turn that into an opportunity for Hawaii," Lu says. "It's like a blank canvas still."

But because China produces numbers like no other country, she suggests people in Hawaii carefully consider what kind of travelers they want to court.

"It's a numbers game. [Hawaii] can't take the mass market numbers, even if the airlift were to continue," says Lu, comparing first time Chinese travelers who are likely to join organized package tours with more experienced FIT (free independent travelers) who prefer to explore on their own with a private guide, taxi or rental car. FITs stay longer, spend more and typically form deeper ties with the places they visit and are more likely to return and potentially invest, Lu says.

FITs travel with a different sense of purpose, she contends, adding that they (particularly affluent ones) will return to get married or honeymoon, celebrate anniversaries, become multi-generation visitors, and ultimately may better integrate with the local community, even as short-term visitors. In Hawaii, where people are very conscious of environmental and sustainability issues, Lu says smaller numbers of big spending FITs are more suitable than mass-marketed discount package bus tours arriving in droves.

I had my own taste of mass Chinese tourism earlier this summer while in Japan. Despite widespread cancellations and political tensions sparked by territorial disputes between China and Japan, I saw more Chinese (on organized package tours) in Japan's Kansai region than I'd ever seen in more than two decades traveling to Japan. There were Chinese tourists wandering shopping arcades and train platforms, Chinese tourists in Zen temples, bamboo forests and McDonalds -- they were everywhere, making what was supposedly a period of scarcity feel like a glut.

'China 101' is over

Two years ago, it was all about building awareness, Lu says. "That phase is over now. It's time to move beyond 'China 101' and talk about concrete strategies and what kind of demographic Hawaii wants to target."

She likens the situation to the chicken and the egg. Will Hawaii wait until there are daily flights arriving from Shanghai and Beijing to recognize the need for Mandarin speakers, translated marketing materials and signage? Not a good idea, Lu says.

But preparing to welcome Chinese visitors to Hawaii is not simply a matter of learning a few Chinese phrases and printing new menus (although that would help). It's important to learn from past mistakes says HTA's Uchiyama.

"We adapted for the Japanese and have to do that for the Chinese too...but we have to be careful not to go overboard," Uchiyama says, pointing to some Japanese visitors who felt Hawaii had tried to make itself too much like Japan.

Lu agrees that swapping out past models used for Japanese visitors and adding Chinese signs is not the answer. Understanding Chinese culture, history and cultural sensitivities has to be part of the bigger picture, says Lu.

Chinese take-away

As the Chinese learn about Hawaii, it behooves us to learn about them too. Many Chinese international travelers are relatively young (20-45) and have spent the last decade climbing the economic ladder. Many have studied English and speak with confidence. Nearly 600 million Chinese people use some form of social media and that number is rising fast. Social networking sites like Weibo, WeChat, RenRen, Kaixin and others allow hundreds of millions of Chinese people to actively research and discuss travel online with friends and strangers.

Chinese travelers who are accustomed to using the Internet to access information in their native tongue have enjoyed widespread free Wifi in places like Seoul and Hong Kong. They will appreciate having it in Hawaii too -- if we make it available. Unlike the early days of Japanese tourism in Hawaii when information was transmitted back home through radio, television, books and movies, today word of a good deal (or bad meal) in Waikiki can spread from Harbin to Hainan faster than you can teach someone to say humuhumunukunukuapuaa.

The ubiquity of technology and the sheer numbers involved mean that big changes are likely to happen faster than expected. Rather than talking about huge numbers of Chinese visitors in five or ten years, Lu says more and more people are realizing these changes may be 18-24 months away.

Not ready for all this change? Don't panic. At the end of the day, Lu says Chinese travelers are not so different from Americans, Japanese or anyone else. As they learn what Hawaii is and what it has to offer, hopefully they will visit, support the economy, and leave as happy ambassadors for Hawaii's natural beauty, its diversity, its cultural richness and the warmth and aloha on which we pride ourselves. Whatever first impression the Chinese take away from Hawaii is up to us, and the time to make it is now.