Tourists could use some reassurance
On the heels of a sixth record-setting year, 2018 tourism forecasts call for a continued climb — 9.5 million visitors by year’s end.
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On the heels of a sixth record-setting year, 2018 tourism forecasts call for a continued climb — 9.5 million visitors by year’s end. More visitors means more bookings for lodging, activities and attractions as well as more spending at restaurants and shops — strengthening Hawaii’s economy and supporting some 200,000 jobs statewide.
Given the streak, it’s easy to forget that this thriving economic engine can slow down — or screech to a jarring stop.
Success hinges largely on maintaining a reputation among visitors that Hawaii is a welcoming and safe destination. The state’s tourism agency, Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), and other industry leaders are now rightly scrambling to smooth out a few dents in our rep.
At news conferences held soon after Saturday’s alert that mistakenly advised of an incoming ballistic missile, HTA’s president and CEO, George Szigeti, was among the responding officials flanking Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell. He also issued a news release stressing that the false alert had been touched off by human error and that the state is moving swiftly on assurances that this type of mistake will never be repeated.
“There is no cause for travelers with trips already booked to Hawaii or considering a vacation in the islands to change their plans. Hawaii continues to be the safest, cleanest and most welcoming travel destination in the world,” Szigeti concluded in the release. However, in the aftermath of the incident it’s clear that more should be done to address visitor safety concerns.
At some hubs, such at the Sheraton Waikiki, where about 3,000 visitors were staying, guests were evacuated in an orderly manner to corridors lined with the property’s hardest walls. Confusion and chaos at sites lacking a clear emergency response was muted by lucky timing of the incident — shortly after 8 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, rather than during peak hours of traffic congestion on busy weekday. The Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association is now taking a promising first step toward
developing a better organized response by canvassing its 700 members for lessons learned.
Another dent: An ongoing assessment — conducted by Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board — weighing whether certain late-night hotspots and locations in Waikiki should be off limits to military members due to concerns about violent crime and other illegal activity.
Prior to early November, the Honolulu Police Department had about 100 officers available to work in Waikiki — on foot, in cars, on bikes and on ATVs. Since then, in response to an increasing count of crimes against visitors, HPD has increased staffing with new recruits, resulting in a doubling of late-night and early-morning watch. Also, 10 street cameras were installed.
The military is flagging valid concerns in the vicinity of two intersections that see a lot of foot-traffic: Kalakaua and Royal Hawaiian avenues, and Kapahulu and Kalakaua avenues. And the city’s response should help mend this reputation dent. Related concerns, such as whether to eliminate cabaret liquor licenses that allow Waikiki establishments to serve liquor until 4 a.m., could be addressed at an upcoming Visitor Public Safety Conference, set for late February in Waikiki.
Szigeti has correctly observed that our state’s tourism reputation can swivel in a nanosecond. Even so, it’s still too early to gauge the size of the dent produced by Saturday’s false alert.
Without a doubt the incident underscores the industry’s fragility. Consider: Four days before Sony Open golfers were sending out nervous messages on social media in response to the alert, the PGA Tour and HTA had signed a $2.1 million contract extending their marketing partnership through 2022 for January tournaments.
At that time, Szigeti said: “It’s about three weeks of exposure for the Hawaiian Islands on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island at a time when people in other parts of the world are watching their cars freeze over — that’s priceless.” What’s priceless now? Calming any rattled safety-related confidence.