HILO — The rebound in Hilo’s cruise ship tourism industry continues, although it appears to be slowing.
According to numbers provided by the state Department of Transportation, 129 port calls are scheduled for Hilo in the coming year, delivering 284,863 passengers. That represents a projected 4.1 percent increase over the 273,668 passengers booked on voyages to Hilo through the end of this year.
In contrast, this year showed a much larger increase in cruise ship passengers of 26.1 percent over 2011’s total of 217,041.
Despite the slowdown, changes continue to move in the right direction, said Port of Hilo Marine Cargo Specialist Elton Suganuma.
“Honestly, the fact that we’re still steadily increasing is encouraging in the face of the economic downturns that all of us have faced recently,” he said. “When times are hard, one of the first things to go are the luxuries, and the fact that we are continuing to grow and increase over what we’ve had in the past is good.”
Suganuma said improvements to Hilo’s port facilities continue, with plans on the horizon for a fourth pier that will significantly add to its commercial capabilities. Final inspections of the harbor upgrade’s Phase I dredging work was completed in April, he said.
“Right now, we’re really limited by space, and this will give us a whole new aspect of what service we can provide to the maritime industry, as well as the community,” he said.
He added that he continues to accept additional bookings for 2013 and even 2014, so the number of anticipated visitors may grow.
“In fact, today, I did something that I never did before. I spoke with a cruise ship that wants to come here in 2014, and they want to spend overnight. Actually, since August, we’ve also had requests coming in for ships to come in on a Tuesday and leaving on a Wednesday night,” he said.
Suganuma said that could bode well for the industry here, with tourists spending more time in town and spending more money at area businesses.
Cruise tourism numbers have been climbing steadily since 2009, following steep declines in 2008 and 2009 brought about by the economic downturn and the loss of Norwegian Cruise Line vessels Pride of Hawaii and Pride of Aloha. In 2007, half a million passengers visited Hilo and spent money here, injecting much-needed tourism dollars into the local economy. But by 2008, that number had been almost halved, to 250,576.
In 2009, the decline continued, albeit at a slower pace, with 205,000 cruise passengers making their way to Hilo.
The increases seen this year were largely due to new ships making calls, including the Disney Wonder. The 965-foot vessel made its first stop here in May, bringing with it a maximum of 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew.
The 921-foot, 2,250-passenger Pride of America, run by a crew of 900, continues to be Hilo’s most active cruise vessel, making once-a-week stops in Hilo all year long. Next year, it is anticipated to bring in 114,750 visitors, accounting for a little more than 40 percent of all cruise ship passenger traffic to East Hawaii.
Over the last year, area businesses and attractions have noted the uptick in cruise ship passenger traffic and equate it with an overall growth of the visitor economy.
Last week, a spokeswoman with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park said that the park continues to see increases in the number of cruise ship passengers coming to see the volcano.
Meanwhile, a Hawaiiana retail mainstay continues to report growth year over year, thanks in large part to cruise ship traffic.
“Last year, we saw our biggest increase in sales of about 15 percent, a record year,” said Randy Repp, store manager at the Hilo Hattie at Prince Kuhio Mall. “We’re still seeing increases, but not as big as last year. But I see that growing as we continue on. Spending is up, and everything is moving in the right direction.