State tourism officials are encouraged by the growing number of South Korean visitors to Hawaii since visa requirements were lifted five years ago.
But tourism works both ways, and the Korea Tourism Organization and Seoul-based Asiana Airlines have stepped up efforts to pitch South Korea as a vacation destination to island-based tour operators.
The Korea Tourism Organization, or KTO, estimates there are about 20,000 to 30,000 visitors from Hawaii to South Korea each year based on air ticket sales. In an effort to increase those numbers, KTO hosted a dinner recently for Hawaii tour operators with Asiana Airlines at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
“A lot of people in Hawaii are interested in Korea because they watch Korean TV dramas,” said Oki Kang, executive director of KTO’s Los Angeles office. “We have a really good flight connection between Honolulu and Incheon (the airport near Seoul) that makes our market more possible to be developed. That’s the reason why we invited a lot of tourism operators –to make them interested in Korea to develop the Korean product.”
Kang, who also met separately with tour operators, said the response was “very good.”
“I think there is a big chance that we can develop more programs to Korea for the operators that sell the product to Asia,” she said. “Our job is to promote Korea as a tourist destination to the people of Hawaii, so I need operators to develop packaged programs to Korea.”
KTO doesn’t break down U.S. visitors by state, but its data show that U.S. visitors to South Korea have been on the upswing. There were 697,866 U.S. visitors who went to Korea in 2012, an increase of 5.5 percent from 661,503 in 2011. This year’s numbers are tracking ahead of 2012 with 615,569 U.S. visitors to Korea through October, up 3.5 percent from 594,998 in the year-earlier period.
But KTO, as well as Asiana Airlines, would like to do better.
“I would like to see people in Hawaii visit Korea because right now most of our business is from Korea to here,” said Yong-Joon Choi, general manager of Asiana Airlines in Honolulu. “I have the responsibility to bring more people to Korea.”
There are three airlines that fly between Honolulu and Seoul. Asiana, which during the first half of December was covering that route seven days a week, is now flying five times a week. Korean Air offers 12 flights a week while Hawaiian Airlines flies seven times a week.
Kang said South Korea’s economy is still struggling, “but compared with other Asian countries, I think we are doing well.”
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who recently returned from a visit to South Korea, told tour operators at the dinner that he was excited that the KTO has committed to expand its offices in Hawaii.
“We think that it’s very important to not only try to encourage visitors from Korea to visit Hawaii as they are now doing because many consider Hawaii the No. 1 spot for honeymooners, but likewise we think it’s very important that people from Hawaii have the opportunity to visit Korea,” he said. “They will really enjoy the multitude of different activities and cultural experiences as well as the great food that I experienced on my trip to Korea.”
David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said visitors from South Korea have increased substantially since that country was included in the U.S. Visa Waiver program in November 2008 that allowed Koreans to travel to the U.S. without a visa.
“The numbers are still relatively small compared to some of our more developed markets, but the percentage growth has been really substantial,” he said.
“Our main focus and main responsibility is driving business into the state, but the lieutenant governor just traveled to Korea and he had conversations with both Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines,” Uchiyama said. “One of the areas in which we can work together, especially with the air carriers, is helping them develop their load factors (the percentage of seats filled), and that’s load factors both ways.”