WAIKIKI (KHNL) - Freedom to travel to the United States for leisure - a group of tourists from China is enjoying that new freedom in Hawaii.
Under a new agreement between China and the U.S., travel agencies in China are now allowed to sell U.S. tour packages.
The first Chinese tour group under that agreement, spent the evening Wednesday in Waikiki.
The group received a warm aloha from Governor Linda Lingle during a welcome reception at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
About 160 Chinese tourists are with the group. Tourism experts say their visit signals a hopeful boost to Hawaii's economy.
A dinner reception for the group was a celebration marking a change in relationship between Hawaii and China.
"This is an especially important relationship because 80% of Hawaii's Chinese residents trace their roots to Guangdong Province," said Governor Linda Lingle.
Guangdong Province is among nine provinces that are now free to advertise and sell U.S.-bound tour packages. Chinese travel agents say Hawaii is a prime destination.
"Hawaii is very special to Chinese tourists because Chinese know about Hawaii through the movie Pearl Harbor," said Skylar Ljing, a travel agent from China.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority says Chinese tourism could potentially fill the void left by the dwindling Japanese tourism market.
"The Japanese market exports about 17 million visitors a year. The China market exports over 40 million a year so it's a huge, huge market," said Rex Johnson, President and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
HTA says, by 2020, China's tourism market is expected to be the largest in the world. And if Hawaii successfully taps into that wealth, travel experts say Chinese tourism could be the next potential pot of gold for the Rainbow State.