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Arrivals up despite calamity

There were fewer visitors from Japan, but tourism overall increased in March

By Allison Schaefers


Visitor arrivals to Hawaii increased 4.2 percent in March despite a 17.9 percent drop in tourists from Japan.

That gain, along with strengthening summer bookings, is building optimism within the industry.

March was on track to be one of the strongest tourism months in five years before bookings from Japan plummeted following the tragic magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that left tens of thousands dead or missing and crippled a nuclear power plant.

"Our booking pace was going great guns, but after 3/11 it slowed down," said Barry Wallace, executive vice president for hospitality services for Outriggers Enterprises Group. "What looked like a rec­ord second quarter got flattened."

In the immediate aftermath, concern about the possible spread of radiation and hotel closings on the Big Island also caused cancellations from Hawaii's top U.S. West and U.S. East markets. The rising price of oil as well as a late Easter, which bumped more spring break vacations to April this year, also dampened March's performance.

Even so, visitor statistics released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority yesterday brought mostly good news. A total 633,365 visitors came to Hawaii in March and spent $980.7 million, up 11.8 percent from a year ago, the HTA reported.

"March represents the 11th consecutive month of a double-digit increase in overall spending, with four of five major market areas posting gains in visitor arrivals and higher average daily spending," said Mike McCartney, HTA president and chief executive.

Strong visitor arrivals from Canada, which rose 34.7 percent, also helped buoy state tourism.Arrivals also increased 3.4 percent from the U.S. West, 7.2 percent from the U.S. East and 65.8 percent from cruise ships.

The double-digit downturn in Japan arrivals resulted in a 4.2 percent spending drop for that market, but all other markets posted spending gains. Spending from Canada rose 51.2 percent and increased 44.4 percent from cruise ship visitors, 16.9 percent from the U.S. East and 6.8 percent from the U.S. West.

Yesterday there were plenty of Canadian travelers on the beaches of Waikiki.

"We have a foot of snow at home," said Jennifer Adams of Alberta when asked why she and the 12 travelers accompanying her on a 10-day trip chose Hawaii.

Lauren Mitchuk, who was enjoying the warm waters with her friend Marley Hanlon, said she has visited Hawaii annually for all of her 18 years.

"It's quiet now," said Mitchuk, who is from Vancouver, British Columbia. "It's usually much busier when we come for Christmas or spring break."

While Hawaii's visitor industry is using selective marketing and specials to drive demand from the United States, Oceania and emerging markets like South Korea and China, it continues to show support for Japan, the state's No. 3 visitor market.

Yesterday the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa and the Salvation Army Hawaiian and Pacific Island Division held a bell-ringing fundraiser for Japan.

"Whether the moneys are coming from our ongoing Aloha for Japan fundraiser or bell ringing for the Salvation Army, our associates are doing everything possible to help the nation of Japan to rebuild and thrive," said David Lewin, Hyatt's general manager.

California visitors Ian and Dan­ica Riner, who stopped to drop some coins in the pot, said travel specials brought them to Hawaii.

"Right now prices are really good," Ian Riner said. "It's super-affordable."

Domestic performance will improve further with the reopening tomorrow of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. The resort, which was devastated by storm surge and debris from the tsunami, was closed for six weeks.

"We are thrilled to reopen our resort following this closure," said Robert Whitfield, general manager of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. "I can't say enough about the dedication of our staff and the support from our guests through this period. Hualalai is back and better than ever."

The market is improving daily, Wallace said.

"Golden Week is a reasonably strong week," he said. "It's the best week that we've had since 3/11 for Japan business. And summer looks to be a very strong time with lots and lots of travel."

McCartney said April and May are firming up thanks to the Easter holiday, the spring break season and scheduled charters from Japan for Golden Week, the chain of national holidays that runs today through Thursday.

Aston Hotels & Resorts is seeing the extra effort it has put into Korea, China and gateway U.S. cities begin to pay off, said Shari Chang, senior vice president of sales, marketing and revenue management.

"The booking pace is picking up," Chang said.

While Hawaii's visitor industry is watching how variables like oil prices and Japan's radiation levels play out, Wallace said he expects the industry will end 2011 ahead of the prior year.

"Although," he said, "I think we'll still be far below the revenues we were earning prior to the 2008 financial collapse. That has had greater impact than Japan."

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