Visitor Count, Lift on Rise

With visitor counts and airlift on the rise, Hawaii’s tourism industry is cautiously optimistic.

By: Marty Wentzel

HONOLULU With visitor counts and airlift from the mainland on the rise, members of Hawaii’s tourism industry are cautiously optimistic about prospects for the rest of this year and into 2004.

For the first eight months of 2003, Hawaii’s visitor arrivals from the mainland rose 3.2 percent compared with the same period last year, according to the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

For the month of August, Hawaii set a new record for domestic arrivals, which increased 5.1 percent, to 449,761 visitors, surpassing August 2002’s benchmark of 427,851. Mainlanders who visited from January through August stayed an average of 10.78 days, 4.9 percent longer than one year ago.

“This year, more than 70 percent of our total visitors will come through the U.S. mainland, a phenomenon that has not been seen in 15 years,” said Marsha Wienert, Hawaii tourism liaison. “Since domestic visitors tend to stay longer in the islands, this may have a very positive impact on our hotel industry.”

The Place to Be

“Hawaii is the place where leisure travelers want to be right now,” said Rob Solomon, Outrigger Hotels and Resorts senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We need to keep Hawaii front and center, making certain that consumers understand the accessibility of our island destinations and the great value we, as an industry, are offering. And, we must be diligent in keeping travel agents aware of new and improved products and offers.”

Primary feeder markets on the West Coast represent more than 50 percent of Castle Resorts & Hotels’ Hawaii business, said Alan Mattson, the chain’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

“The only caution is, we must continue to remain competitive with Mexico,” Mattson said. “Many of the tour operators we work with also sell Mexico, and it seems that their Mexico business is up more this year than their Hawaii business for the first half of 2003.” The key, said Mattson, is to provide a product that can compete with Mexico and other destinations focused on aggressive marketing.

Karen Hughes, regional vice president of sales and marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, said Hawaii as a destination is in good shape for the coming year.

“With the strength of the euro, Americans will be more inclined to travel in the U.S., where their dollar goes farther,” said Hughes. “Hawaii has great appeal, especially in uncertain times, due to its rejuvenating and calming qualities.”

Booking Challenge

However, the booking window for Hawaii continues to be a challenge, said Hughes. “The very short booking window makes it difficult to forecast,” she said. “But the airlines have come through with some strong fall rates, and we have a great supply of airlift from all points in the U.S.”

Buoyed by Official Airline Guides schedules as of August, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau predicted that airlines will have flown 5.9 million seats on scheduled, nonstop domestic flights to Hawaii by the end of 2003, an 8.8 percent in 2002 levels.

This year’s steady increase in airlift to Hawaii has directly impacted occupancies at hotel chains like Marriott.

According to Paul Toner, area director of marketing for Marriott International, the company’s Hawaii occupancies for the first half of 2003 exceeded those from the same period last year. “We anticipate that the momentum of this successful summer will carry over to the fall and winter, as well as into the first quarter of 2004,” he said.

Toner noted that several gateways are performing well. “Southern California continues to be a strong market for us,” he said. “We’re also seeing an increase in visitors from cities where direct flights are available, such as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle and Vancouver.”

Upswing Noted

The upswing in westbound airlift is equally apparent at the Outrigger chain, said Solomon.

“The West Coast has remained a strong market for us, and interior business has picked up thanks to gateways that have added daily nonstop service, like Denver,” he said. “In the absence of any bad news or disruptive factors, the first quarter of 2004 should look positive compared to 2003.”

Hawaii officials have another reason for optimism in the form of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ growing commitment to the islands. Along with the Norwegian Star’s weekly cruises out of Honolulu and its seasonal 10- and 11-day itineraries on the Norwegian Wind, the company next year is adding three-, four- and seven-day interisland cruises on Pride of America and Pride of Aloha.

NCL’s increased focus on Hawaii means more exposure for the islands, said Mattson. “Their new cruises will bring first-time visitors to Hawaii and repeat visitors back,” he said.