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Hawaii's Economic Engine of Tourism Encouraging, However
Isle Tourism Should be Nurtured Carefully

The Honolulu Star-AdvertiserMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

June 06, 2012--While the nation's economy continues to disappoint, Hawaii's economic engine of tourism is experiencing encouraging numbers. While visitor industry leaders have every reason to be optimistic, they should follow through on policies to solidify the islands as a popular destination from all directions.

The most recent numbers are impressive: an April record for visitor arrivals, resulting in an increase in spending by 26.8 percent -- $246.5 million more than the same month last year -- for a total monthly expenditure of $1.17 billion, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Daily spending per visitor was $194, 10.4 percent more than April 2011.

The national unemployment rate rose from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent in May, after Hawaii's jobless rate dropped from 6.4 percent to 6.3 percent in April, the lowest level in more than three years. While the nation's job market came as a blow to President Barack Obama, at least some of Hawaii's success can be credited to the president for signing an executive order in January with initiatives that included a pilot program and rule change for visas processing in China, whose travelers to Hawaii spend an average of more than $380 a day.

Along those lines, Hawaii's congressional delegation should work toward allowing visa waivers for Chinese tourists, which allow visitors to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.

The numbers indicate the burgeoning Asia effect. While Hawaii tourism from the mainland was up in April, more than half of that month's gain came from Oceania and other Asian countries, including China, Korea and Taiwan, according to Daniel Nahoopii, the Hawaii Tourism Authority's director of tourism research.

Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort, said Hawaii appears to be about nine months into a positive five-year cycle with "another four years or so of growth to go." The indication, he said, is that about 80 percent to 90 percent of Waikiki hotels are full, due partly to travelers from Europe, Japan, Oceania, Canada and the U.S.

Increased air lift from new markets, too, is bringing more travelers to Oahu and the neighbor islands. Hawaiian Airlines, for example, just two days ago inaugurated its first nonstop flight to and from New York, which is expected to provide $156 million in visitor spending annually to Hawaii and $17 million in tax revenues.

All of these trends, while enormously heady, serve to remind how crucial it is for Hawaii to stay atop of the tourism crest. This means remaining competitive and even steps ahead of the competition in terms of destination lure and visitor experience.

Our famed "aloha" brand goes a long way, but only so far -- investments must be continually made into tangibles such as improved facilities at the airports, public parks and tourist attractions.

The experiences and amenities must be periodically maintained, refreshed and evolved, so that visitors get valued memories for their hard-earned dollars.

Creative thinking in diversifying tourism is also key -- think niche agricultural tours and sports tourism. Important partnerships, too, can provide a big boost -- think the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii and possible developmental league outreach into Asia.

"While recovery has been challenging and the future of the global market remains unstable," said HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney, "we feel that tourism will continue in an upward swing and are committed to working with the industry, our community and our global marketing partners to achieve our targets for the year."

Certainly, Hawaii remains vulnerable to global economic uncertainties such as those continuing in Europe and slowing growth in China. But the latest tourism statistics foreshadow a big-step evolution in Hawaii's travel industry if reinvestment can be made wisely.


(c)2012 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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