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From weddings to war: What’s driving tourism between Hawaii and South Korea – Hawaii News Now

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Travel between Hawaii and South Korea is ramping up — and that’s welcome news for island tourism businesses who cater to Koreans.

Family-owned Ocean Star Cruises hosts more than 10,000 Korean visitors each year and is run by Hawaii’s first Korean boat captain.

“Spring season and fall season in Korea is honeymoon and wedding season. So a lot of the honeymoon couples are coming to Hawaii,” said Capt. Eunho Yang, co-owner of Ocean Star.

“They just want to do something romantic, a cruise and the sunset combined, so a sunset cruise,” said daughter Joy Choi.

From romance to family fun to outdoor activities, Koreans’ love of Hawaii translated to about $220 million in the first half of this year alone.

See more of HNN’s special “Focus on Korea” series by clicking here.

“It’s about $310 per person spending in Hawaii per day, which is about 8 percent increase when you compare from pre COVID statistics,” said Irene Lee, country director of Hawaii Tourism Korea.

Pre-pandemic, about a quarter million Koreans traveled to Hawaii each year.

This year, that number is expected to be 170,000.

“It’s still at about 70%, 75% level compared to pre COVID. But the Korea travel market is actually one of the fastest growing market for Hawaii and Asia,” Lee said.

Still, Lee notes a slow Korean economy is creating a bottleneck to recovery.

“Koreans feel that USA is more expensive than before,” she said. “Because of this strong U.S. dollar currency, our export is slower than pre COVID.”

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To combat that, Hawaii Tourism Korea recently hosted a travel mission and is reaching out to 8 million people in major cities across South Korea, especially repeat visitors.

“To target the premium market, we do active promotions surrounding golf, scuba dive and expensive hobbies,” Lee said.

“Koreans who are mindful and who are more respectful, who are experienced travelers so that when they travel to Hawaii, they can appreciate the culture (and) the people living there.”

And while less than 20% of Koreans visit Maui, HTA Korea hopes to increase that. “We are trying to promote Maui, especially for honeymooners to visit non affected areas to help the economy.”

Meantime, South Korea’s tourism strategy in the U.S. promotes the countries’ shared history.

During recent road shows in the continental U.S., Korean officials said they shared stories from veterans of the Korean War.

“Every time we invited the war veterans is like conveying our deep gratitude to them. And I think it is a kind of promotion that can attract the United States,” said Jisun Kim, director of the Europe, Americas & Oceania team for the Korea Tourism Organization, through an interpreter.

And because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance, you’ll find events that celebrate it, like an exhibit at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.

Korean officials also appeal to visitors’ curiosity about North Korea with tours of the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea.

“Some people might find it a little bit dangerous, however, we are trying our best to promote them as a very valuable resource for tourism,” Kim said.

But what many Hawaii residents love most about traveling to Korea is the shopping, food, culture and scenery. And there will be more chances to experience it this winter, when a new Korean carrier Air Premia plans to offer low-cost flights between Honolulu and Incheon.

Currently, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines fly between Honolulu and Incheon.

“Korea and Hawaii have a common ground about the beautiful nature,” Kim said. “If there is a lot of exchange, it’s especially tourist exchange between Hawaii and Korea. We believe that two countries’ tourism industry will grow much, much more.”

View more episodes of HNN’s special series “Focus on Korea.”

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