By Fang Yan and Matthew Miller
BEIJING, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Hawaiian Airlines will start flying from Honolulu to mainland China in April, a route the U.S. carrier is confident will become one of its fastest-growing in Asia even as competition from Chinese rivals heats up.
The eighth largest U.S. commercial carrier is seeking to cash in on the popularity of Hawaii with wealthy Chinese holiday makers who have been visiting the tropical state in droves over the past few years, thanks in part to speedier visa procedures.
Hawaiian Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Peter Ingram told Reuters in an interview he expected tourist numbers to soar in the next few years as disposable incomes rise, which in turn will boost the carrier's turnover.
"Today Chinese visitors are a relative small proportion of that total, but given the strong economy and the growing middle class, we think the number of Chinese visitors will grow, grow and grow in the years ahead," Ingram said on Wednesday during a trip to Beijing.
The number of Chinese visitors to Hawaii has risen by around 40 percent a year since 2012, according to the latest figures from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which cited shopping and entertainment as their favourite activities.
They also have deep pockets: daily spending by Chinese tourists was the highest out of all visitors to Hawaii at just under $400 a person, tourism authority data shows.
Hawaii's rising popularity prompted China Eastern Airlines Corp Ltd , which has been flying to Honolulu since 2011, to increase its flights to five a week instead of three late last year.
Air China Ltd also launched a thrice-weekly service from Beijing to Honolulu on January 21.
Ingram said Hawaiian Airlines' service, which is steeped in the traditions of Hawaii, would distinguish it from the competition. The airline also offers customers a shuttle between Hawaii's different islands as well as flights to 11 other U.S. cities.
"We are really focused on serving Hawaii as an destination uniquely," he said. "We build our entire products on having service and hospitality that reflects the culture of Hawaii."
Hawaiian Airlines, which has been flying Chinese tourists to Honolulu via Seoul, will now fly directly from Beijing three times a week from April 18.
The carrier also intends to expands its service to China, adding more frequencies and flying to other cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in the future, Ingram said.
Hawaiian Airlines first broke into the Asian market in November 2010 with a daily service to Tokyo and Japan remains its biggest market.
China will be the airline's eighth destination in the Asia, a region the carrier expects will generate up to 40 percent of its turnover in the next 5 to 10 years from a quarter in 2013.