The first regularly scheduled commercial passenger flights arriving direct from Beijing touched down in Honolulu this week. There will be more.

China Airlines was the first to reach the landing gate; Hawaiian Airlines will get into the act starting in April. It’s true that the volume of visitors from China remains small — the Hawaii Tourism Authority projects a total of 182,000 for this year. By way of comparison, nearly 162,000 Japanese came to Hawaii last August alone.

Still, the Chinese do spend more each day than any other travelers coming to the islands and they represent a growing market. And in case there may have been any confusion as to how seriously the state and the industry consider this group, the governor himself greeted that first flight in person. On a holiday and the day before his State of the State address and the de facto launch of his re-election campaign, no less.

But despite the flurry of attention and the hype about the future potential of Chinese tourism in Hawaii, the HTA and others in the tourism industry are missing a natural strategy available right now: marketing our fresh air.
One of the many joys of Hawaii is stepping off a plane from anywhere and taking that first deep breath. Another is enjoying the smile that inevitably follows. Those who live here may sometimes forget that sensation, or even take it for granted in a rush to go pick up luggage and head home. But to people who live in a place where the air is on occasion dangerous to breathe, appreciation comes on a whole different level.

Just last week, the air in northern China was so bad that residents were advised to stay indoors. Pollution readings in Beijing averaged 18 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. The city is the national center of political power, government influence, and filthy air. It’s also home to a great deal of wealth, and a growing consumer class that’s simultaneously saving money and looking for places to spend it on new experiences. Plus, there’s a significant expatriate crowd that could also do with some lung cleansing.

The desire for clean air doesn’t yet show up on surveys asking Chinese travelers what they want most from their vacation destinations. Then again, it’s also not showing up on the multiple-choice questionnaires. At least not so far.

According to Internet travel group Travelzoo, a recent survey found the top holiday activity for Chinese tourists was a “beach holiday,” cited by 73 percent of respondents. Sightseeing was the next most popular, listed by 40 percent, followed closely by the understandable if unusual sounding attraction labeled “self-drive.” These were followed by hot springs, “wine and dine,” and shopping. It’s an open question where “clean air” might show up, especially if those filling out the surveys are coming from Beijing.

Each year, China’s travelers are becoming more globally ubiquitous. The country’s National Tourism Administration reports Chinese tourists made nearly 100 million overseas trips in 2013, up 18 percent from 2012. The Chinese have already overtaken the Germans and the Americans as the world’s biggest-spending international tourists ($114 billion in overseas spending in 2012, according to government figures).

As for favorite destinations, preferences vary in different surveys. Hong Kong is frequently cited, along with Macau, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And while you can’t gamble in Hawaii, you sure can go to the beach, shop and “self-drive” all you like. And here’s the kicker: even making allowances for the occasional vog, Hawaii has much better air than all of those places.

Hawaii doesn’t make the list of favorites for visitors from China. We’ve all heard about ways to change that — from visa waivers and more flights to having more Mandarin speakers in the hospitality industry and providing banquet buffets and a nice congee for breakfast.

All of this is undoubtedly true. But it’s also true that the “soft shoulder season” of Hawaii tourism in January and February coincides with some of the worst pollution days in northern China (among other factors, cold weather brings increased burning of coal).

So here’s a modest proposal to those who spend their professional lives drumming up potential visitors to Hawaii — let’s not be shy about our air. Let’s talk about it, revel in it, put it on the front pages of the marketing brochures.

To someone stepping off a flight from Beijing, Hawaii’s air is the equivalent of a valuable retail product that comes free with the rest of the wonders found on a visit to these islands. Such a traveler represents a market starved for clean air. This group of people could truly benefit from spending a good few days in clean air and they may be ready to pay for it. Especially once they realize how badly they want it.

There’s no need for a legislative remedy or a dramatic strategy shift, not even a new consulting contract. Just take a deep breath and start marketing one of our daily blessings: the fresh air of the islands that is only a small part of what makes us lucky we live Hawaii.

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