The Hawaii Tourism Authority is forecasting visitor arrivals will hit 8.5 million and visitor spending will total $15.8 billion in 2013. To reach that lofty goal or even surpass it, the state agency is focusing on improving the distribution to the neighbor islands, said David Uchiyama, HTA vice president of brand management.
Visitor arrivals fell just shy of 8 million in 2012, still a record-breaking year. There were 7.99 million visitors to Hawaii, spending $14.3 billion. In 2011, there were 7.3 million visitors to the islands, spending $12.1 billion, Uchiyama said.
During a Destination Kona Coast luncheon Tuesday at the Royal Kona Resort, Uchiyama said HTA is pushing far more aggressive targets this year, believing there’s great potential for growth in increasing travel to — and affecting economic recovery on — the neighbor islands. He said visitors want “new experiences, ones with more substance and authenticity than what they’ve seen or done before,” as well as plenty of shopping opportunities that include big box stores like Costco and Target.
HTA is continuing to highlight experiences unique to each destination while also focusing on the diversification in new segments like the meetings, conventions and incentive market, which tourism officials believe will likely help maintain the positive momentum through 2014 and 2015, he said.
HTA is working to maintain and increase airlift. Uchiyama said there’s a direct correlation between increased airlift and the success of Hawaii’s visitor industry. Major draws are direct service to destinations, such as Hawaiian Airlines offering flights from San Jose and Oakland, Calif., and an increase in interisland flights. HTA has also met with go! parent Mesa Airlines to discuss itsgoals for the neighbor islands and the type of visitor experience the agency does not want, he added.
Uchiyama spoke about the importance of re-establishing Kona International Airport as a second international port of entry for the Hawaiian Islands and getting customs and immigration facilities there running again. Currently, customs and immigration staff have to be flown in. He said there’s a proposal for a permanent customs and immigration facility, costing more than $30 million, at the airport, but it only makes sense if at least four carriers operate international flights there.
Uchiyama mentioned how HTA is working with Japan Airlines to restore regular service to the Big Island and how the grounding of Boeing 787 aircraft is creating uncertainty because the air carrier may not have enough planes to operate all its Hawaii-to-Japan flights. One solution HTA has suggested is Japan Airlines fly three times a week to Honolulu and four times a week to Kona, he added.
To build a stronger international flight market for the Big Island, HTA has also talked to Australia’s Qantas Airways and Korean Air Lines, Uchiyama said. Korea already has four flights a day — two by Korean Airlines, which has already hired a station manager, one by Hawaiian Airlines and one by South Korea’s Asiana Airlines, he added.
Hoping to improve the state’s relationship with the cruise industry, HTA has attended the industry’s largest convention and trade show, Cruise Shipping Miami, as well as met one-on-one with businesses. Uchiyama said the cruise industry is important to the state because of its “great exposure and dispersal to the neighbor islands.” He also mentioned how the arrivals do not require any additional infrastructure on land or services. However, there are no long-term agreements with these businesses; everything is done on a year-to-year basis, he said.
From the discussions, Uchiyama has learned most cruise ship companies are interested in Hawaii, and those with vessels in the Pacific want to keep them here instead of taking them to the Atlantic. However, cruise ship companies want certain improvements, such as better scheduling of ships, the bundling of fees at ports, legalized gambling, a small passenger terminal at Kailua Pier and a waiver from having to use the more expensive low-sulfur fuel now required. With the help of the state Department of Transportation and Department of Land and Natural Resources, HTA has already started working on a master schedule of the ships for all islands, which Uchiyama said will help ensure the passenger experience is optimized. He said this will also make sure local companies are properly prepared to fulfill passengers’ needs.
“The cruise ship companies want to see if they have a partner,” he said. “If we can knock off three or four of these issues over the next couple of years, there will be more opportunities for us to sustainably grow our tourism economy.”