Chinese Tourism To Hawaii Is On The Decline, Is The Trade War To Blame?

Aug 5, 2019

Recently released data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows that Chinese visitor arrivals dropped 25 percent in the first half of 2019. It was a on a downward trend before President Trump’s trade war.

Chinese visitors currently account for less than 2 percent of Hawaii’s almost 10 million annual visitors. They also spend more money per person than visitors from any other region.

That has led many policymakers and analysts to suggest that the average Chinese visitor reflects who Hawaii should be courting: high spenders who overwhelmingly chose to stay in conventional hotels.

The Chinese market represents a potential boon for Hawaii’s economy. 10 million Chinese visited Thailand alone last year.

So why are they opting for destinations other than Hawaii?

The decline in the islands reflects a broader national trend. The U.S. Dollar is strong relative to other currencies, making travel to the United States more expensive for foreign travelers.

Visa requirements may be another factor, according to Hawaii State Senator Glenn Wakai, who chairs a committee on economic development.

“Why have to go through the U.S. Embassy to get a visa to come to America? So a lot of Chinese are choosing to go elsewhere.”

8 of the top 10 travel destinations for Chinese tourists going abroad are in Asia, with the entire United States clocking in at 9th.

Although the downward trend began to accelerate in 2018, Chinese arrivals to Hawaii peaked in 2015, so it seems unlikely that the 18-month old trade war is entirely to blame.

More likely, according to Honolulu-based attorney Kai Wang, are the investment restrictions put in place by both the U.S. and Chinese governments and the drumbeat of protectionism and anti-Chinese sentiment that has been building for several years in American public discourse.

“If what they hear is there is a distrust between the two countries and ‘you’re not welcome in our neighborhood’ then they won’t feel comfortable coming,” she said.

Wang, who has worked extensively throughout China, but now lives in Honolulu, says that there are as many as 160 million Chinese travelling abroad each year. She thinks the less than 140,000 or so coming to Hawaii would have continued to increase, but national policies from both national governments “nipped it in the bud.”

State Senator Glenn Wakai says that the time likely isn’t right for a concentrated effort to attract more Chinese, but substituting them for lower spending visitors from the U.S. and Europe could be a way to continue economic growth without chasing ever higher arrival numbers.