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Tragedy takes bite of isle tourism

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    Mai Engelhardt, 4, and her sister Hana, 2, of Tokyo built sand castles yesterday on Waikiki Beach. Their family moved up its planned summer trip to Hawaii by several months to escape the aftermath of the tragedy in Japan. However, many visitors from Japan are postponing or canceling their vacations.

The state worked to shore up its tourism economy as Tokyo visitors Yoko Engelhardt and her daughters Mai, 4, and Hana, 2, built sand castles yesterday on Waikiki Beach.

The Engelhardts’ presence was a good thing for Hawaii’s visitor industry, which has seen thousands of cancellations from Japan as a result of this month’s earthquake, tsunami and subsequent radiation scare. Engelhardt said her family decided to move up its annual summer trip so that they could get to Hawaii sooner.

"I wanted to stay in Japan, but my family was so worried about the children," said Engelhardt. "Right now most people are canceling trips. They are just staying home."

Radiation concerns have spread to the U.S. mainland and elsewhere, said Jack E. Richards, president and chief executive officer of Hawaii’s largest wholesaler, Pleasant Holidays LLC.

"Last week was our worst week in 20 weeks," Richards said. "Since November of 2010 we had seen double-digit gains. Last week it went negative."

The closure on the Big Island of the Four Seasons Hualalai and Kona Village, which were badly damaged by the tsunami that hit Hawaii on March 11, contributed to the declines, he said.

Luckily, the state was doing pretty well before the tragedy in Japan, said Ben Rafter, president and chief executive of Aqua Hotels & Resorts.

"We had been off to a great pace," Rafter said. "Growth was fueled by strong results from the U.S. West and Canada."

Total February arrivals increased by 11.7 percent to 593,018 visitors last month, according to data released yesterday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. At the same time, total spending from these visitors rose 18.7 percent to $1.01 billion, which surpassed the amount spent during the same month in 2007, Hawaii’s peak year for visitor spending.

Strong February results will help mitigate the damage to the market brought on by Japan’s struggle. Still, the HTA expects that Hawaii will lose 4.4 percent of its projected total arrivals and 4.1 percent of its projected total spending through June. As a result, the HTA plans to spend more than $3 million on a recovery plan that will stabilize the Japan market and grow others.

Hawaii tourism will weather this latest tragedy, said Mike McCartney, HTA president and chief executive.

"The economic growth that we have seen over the last year is an indicator of how resilient we are as a community and destination," McCartney said.

While word is out that it is safe to travel to Hawaii, some travelers remain cautious, Richards said. Pleasant Holidays will begin a marketing campaign tomorrow aimed at driving visitor demand for Hawaii, he said.

"Hawaii is the single largest destination for our company," Richards said. "But until the Japanese cap those reactors, there will be some travelers that just don’t come."

Debbi Campbell and Mike Davidson of Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia said yesterday near the Duke Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki that they had discussed postponing their trip to Oahu. Ultimately, the couple decided to make the trip that they had planned for two years.

"I had a cousin here the day of the tsunami," Campbell said. "She said that it was fine to come."

However, some friends advised them not to eat Hawaii’s seafood because of radiation, she said.

"We just laughed because we live near the oil fields and probably breathe in a lot worse every day," Campbell said.

News coverage of the conflict in Libya has bumped most of the tsunami, earthquake and radiation stories, Davidson said.

"The stuff in Japan was the big story. Now it’s all about Libya," he said. "I don’t think that many people where we live are worried about traveling to Hawaii."

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