The wave of change coming to Hawaii tourism could be seen on a recent evening at La Mer, the Halekulani hotel’s five-star French restaurant. The raucous group at one table stood out amid the room’s dark wood, roses, flickering Wolford lamps and sophisticated, low-key clientele.
Their laughter and Mandarin could be heard from across the restaurant and drew stares from other diners. The guests, some clad in white T-shirts, were snapping selfies, iPhone in one hand and a bottle of Opus One in the other. The Chinese patrons failed to adhere to the restaurant’s dress code, but that was not entirely their fault. La Mer’s website clearly states, “Long-sleeved collared shirt or jacket is required for gentlemen,” but only in English and Japanese, not in Chinese.
The evening was a clear sign that well-heeled Chinese people are coming. It is also a sign that Hawaii is barely prepared for an emerging market that is linguistically, culturally and temperamentally different from the Japanese visitors whom Hawaii’s tourism industry caters to. While different in some ways from other current tourists, the spending and travelling habits of the Chinese partially mirror those of both mainlanders and the Japanese when they first started coming to Hawaii in large numbers decades ago.
If the surrounding La Mer patrons looked askance at the Chinese diners, no one is more anxious about their behavior than the Chinese government itself. In 2012, the Communist Party issued a 64-page tome instructing its citizens on how they should behave in the world. Tips included: Don’t spit on the ground, don’t cut in line or talk too loud, and don’t travel in huge groups. Of the 97.3 million Chinese who went abroad in 2013, 115,823 came to Hawaii – almost double the number in 2010. This falls well below the 1.7 million Japanese visitors to Hawaii last year, but the Chinese market is booming while the Japanese market has plateaued.
Hawaii’s Chinese visitors, even more than Japanese tourists, love to shop and spend money. The Hawaii Tourism Authority reports that, for the first four months of 2014, the average Chinese tourist spent $407 a day in Hawaii, while the average Japanese spent $280 – each far more than the average American. In fact, Chinese travelers spent $129 billion worldwide in 2013, tops on the planet, with American tourists in second place at $86 billion, The Economist reported in April.
Chinese travelers may not share the Japanese infatuation with the South Pacific, but they do know Hawaii. “There is already an awareness of and a passion for Hawaii and things American,” says David Charles, managing director of DFS Hawaii. In China, the island of Hainan markets itself as “The Chinese Hawaii,” replete with an “Aloha Cup” regatta race and the Sanya Aloha, a condominium complex. Flush with new wealth, many Chinese now want the real thing.
“They’re coming to Hawaii for the clean air,” among other things, says Jerry Agrusa, professor of travel-industry management at Hawaii Pacific University and a keen observer of Chinese tourists in Hawaii. However, they’ve only begun to dip their toes into beach culture, he explains. “The Chinese aren’t big on tanning, though the younger visitors are going in the water. The older people like the water, but they don’t like getting wet. They like to stay above the water. There are some issues around swimming.”
Agrusa continues, “Some are golfing, but they don’t have years and years of experience playing golf (like the Japanese). They can’t play well yet, but they want to play because it’s a prestige thing. They like big brands names, so they’ll get a picture of themselves golfing at Waialae Country Club (home of the Sony Open). They’re spending an average of $407 per day, but when a visitor drops $10,000 on a Rolex, (that average) gets thrown out of whack.” They also come because they can be assured they are buying a real Louis Vuitton Lockit bag. “Authenticity” is a concern for Chinese because they come from a country where fake iPhones, are sold out of fake Apple stores, by employees who believe they are working for Apple.
It is still far more common to find Japanese buyers – and Japanese-speaking employees – at luxury stores in Ala Moana Center and along Kalakaua Avenue. However, during the past five years, Hermès, Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the like have started hiring Mandarin speakers to serve Chinese customers in their Hawaii stores.
But Chinese can also be bargain hunters. At Waikele Premium Outlets, employee Taylor Mahi at the Vans Shoes store says, “The Japanese tend to go for the edgier styles, the limited edition, banana-yellow ‘Beatles Era’ lace-up and python prints. The Chinese tend to look for deals.”
Gymboree sales associate Dana Aguilar also notes her Chinese customers’ preference for thrift. There, Chinese visitors spend on average $100 to $200 per visit and snap up items on the sale rack or that are part of a “Buy One, Get One Free” deal. The Japanese seem to prioritize style, while the Chinese prioritize value. The Chinese are looking for goods they can show off back home, and consequently, explains Charles, “They don’t necessarily see value in luxury accommodations, reasoning, ‘I can’t wear it when I go home.’ So they choose to stay at three-star hotels.”
Looking at spending trends posted by Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, Chinese tourists spend on average 45 percent of their daily budget on shopping, and only 24 percent on lodging. The Japanese spend on average 28 percent on shopping and 38 percent on lodging. As a result, luxury hotels are looking for ways to make themselves more attractive to the Chinese. Both Hilton and Starwood are paying close attention to their Chinese guests. Cindy Gong, Hilton Hawaii regional senior sales manager, characterizes the Chinese guests as first-time visitors.
“When people are unfamiliar with their surroundings, they become more cautious and require extra attention, such as Chinese-speaking staff, signage in Chinese and staff trained in Chinese culture.” Even though these guests are travelling abroad for new experiences, Gong says, “They can’t put their Chinese traditions aside.”
To accommodate them, Hilton provides slippers, hot water for tea in guest rooms and a selection of Chinese dishes at its restaurants. Starwood boasts of being the first hotel chain in Hawaii to add Chinese items to its breakfast buffets: dumplings and congee with condiments such as pickles and pork floss.
Liwei Kimura, Starwood Hawaii director of development, notes, “We actually have guests move to our hotel after arriving in Hawaii, due to the breakfast-quality difference.” Even as these hotels adapt to the expectations of Chinese guests, Gong notes, “They’re always seeking better deals” and remain sensitive to price. While most Japanese tourists no longer rely on the packaged tours that they used in the past, first-time Chinese visitors favor group travel and jam-packed schedules – and hotels have had to adapt. At the Hilton, Gong says, that means express check-in and Mandarin speakers at the help desk to provide faster service to clients who are locked in on a tour and always on the go.
Kimura notes another cultural factor that must be respected. In Chinese social groups, she says, “Hierarchy is very important. It applies to which guest gets the lei first, to the pecking order of floors in room assignment, to a mini Chinese rooming list in the top boss’s key pack to allow him to easily locate his entourage.”
Today’s developing Chinese market in Hawaii is similar to the Japanese market of the late 1980s. An easing of visa rules has helped spur the recent doubling of Chinese visitors. Similarly, from 1984 to 1988, when Japan joined the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, the number of Japanese travelers to Hawaii nearly doubled, from 638,000 to 1,072,000 a year. (The number peaked at 2,216,890 in 1997 and has since plateaued at around 1.7 million a year.)
“When the Japanese first started coming to Hawaii, they were armed with funds from relatives, asking them to buy things for them,” explains David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority’s VP of brand management. “They had a limited understanding about the destination, and, because they were carrying a lot of money on behalf of family and friends, retail purchases took a preference over destination. Back then, Japanese were spending double what they’re spending today.”
Entrepreneur and Snapzoom CEO Daniel Fujikake recalls working at his father’s store, Raku Leather. “It was a unique shop. My dad was selling leather jackets in the middle of Waikiki, and the Japanese were searching for anything they could find that wasn’t popular in Japan. They were lining up to buy Dooney and Burke, buying four or five handbags at a go.”
At the same time, Fujikake explains, the influx of Japanese visitors altered Waikiki. “The landscape changed from bars and restaurants and going to the beach to retail stores. Locals and long-time visitors complained about this shift toward shopping. Suddenly there were luxury stores and signs everywhere in Japanese.”
Like the Japanese who preceded them, today’s Chinese visitor tends to be in the charter market. “They prefer to have someone else organizing their itinerary,” explains Joseph Toy, president and CEO of Hospitality Advisors LLC. “They like to travel with other Chinese people. Private capital is coming out of China, making alliances with outbound tour operators. There is the trend toward vertical integration, where operators own the airlines, hotels and tour packages.
And some destinations don’t want to be overwhelmed by this emerging market.” Chinese now occupy the dubious role once filled by mainland Americans who travelled in touring packs to Hawaii and Europe during the dawn of the “jet age” and aimed their cameras at everything. However, with about 8 million visitors a year in Hawaii, there is also a backlash from locals who resent tourists crowding into their neighborhoods, local beaches, farmers markets and hiking trails.
In those cases, the main offenders are mainland, Japanese and other visitors who use guidebooks and the Internet to find neighborhood shops and restaurants – to experience the places locals go. The Chinese, so far, mostly head to traditional tourist spots in their search for an authentic, Hawaiian experience.
There are indications that younger and more experienced Chinese tourists are traveling more and more on their own. A report from Hotels.com’s Chinese International Travel Monitor says 70 percent of the Chinese traveling abroad are doing so independently. Over time, Chinese tourists to Hawaii will likely follow the evolution of Japanese tourists and the mainland tourists before them: travel more adventurously and fall in love with Hawaii’s sand and surf. At least, that’s the view of the beach boys in Waikiki, who have seen it all before.
Virgil Sisiam started working on Waikiki Beach at age 14. Now 49, he’s still at Queen’s Beach, teaching surfing, captaining boats and taking tourists out to catch waves on an outrigger canoe. These new ChInese tourists, he says, are eager to get in the water. “We ask them, ‘Can you swim?’ And, if not, we stay in waist-high water. Most of the Chinese are going to take lessons. These days, the Japanese, they’ve learned to shop around, they’re more cautious and they watch what they spend. The Chinese, they’ll go to where the concierge sends them. It’s all the same, they’re all people and I can get them to stand (on a surfboard) – 250, 300 pounds, I can still get (them) up and riding.”
A few yards over, Moki Mirada, who captains the Manakai Catamaran, also sees nothing to worry about. “Most people who don’t know beach culture come here because they want to experience the ocean, they come to the beach to see this,” he says, and he points to the long, slow waves washing ashore.