Chinese Tourists in Hawai‘i
Dragon 'Em Around: We hopped on the bus with China’s pioneers of leisure travel to see Hawaii through their bleary eyes.
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Somewhere between Chen’s Gourmet Buffet and the statue of King Kamehameha, Wayne Lu lost half his audience.
Lu is a tour guide for a Honolulu travel company called Dragon Tours & Travel, and his audience is a group of 30 vacationers from mainland China on the first day of a whirlwind, 12-day, eight-city tour of the United States.
Total Chinese Visitors to Hawaii
He met them in the morning at the airport, whisked them off to see the Arizona Memorial, then brought them to lunch at Chen’s, an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet along Nimitz Highway. There, he made a prediction: “Fifty percent will fall asleep after lunch.”
After a 15-hour trip to Honolulu from Shanghai, via Tokyo, the group was beat. By the time its motor coach stopped across from Iolani Palace, beside the Kamehameha statue, Lu’s prediction had come true. Despite his amiable, nonstop patter, at least half the bus had nodded off.
“They always fall asleep after lunch,” Lu said again, after his bleary-eyed charges descended from the motor coach to take photos beneath Kamehameha’s outstretched arm.
Meet the weary pioneers of Chinese leisure travel, forerunners of a rapidly building new wave of wealthy and middle-class visitors from the People’s Republic of China. Increasingly, you can find them piling out of buses at the usual tourist attractions, or forking out huge sums for designer handbags and watches at luxury shops in Ala Moana and Waikiki, or learning the hard way that haggling at the Apple Store will get you nowhere.
Although they make up a tiny fraction of the 7.2 million visitors overall that Hawaii saw last year, their numbers are growing quickly—from 28,664 in 2001 to 79,531 in 2011. Just as China’s economy surpassed Japan’s as the world’s second-largest in 2010, so, too, could the number of Chinese tourists in Hawaii someday surpass the number of Japanese tourists.
“One day, in my opinion, it will happen,” says Sadie Goo, China market brand manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “Given that China’s population is 1.4 billion, and they have so many wealthy people and so much disposable income, they will eventually be the No. 1 outbound source market in the world.”
To make the acquaintance of these fledgling travelers with the potential to transform the face of Hawaii’s visitor industry, HONOLULU Magazine shadowed Lu and his 30 travelers on their two-day tour of Oahu.
Fewer than 15 percent of Hawaii’s Chinese tourists come to Hawaii as independent travelers, booking their own trips, following their own schedules, renting cars and confounding local drivers unfamiliar with China’s first-is-right rule of the road. The majority of Chinese tourists in Hawaii today come with group tours, often part of steeply discounted, multi-city packages that jam as much Hawaii into as little time as possible.