In 2012, the number of travelers who got married in Hawaii rose by 5.1 percent. // © 2014 HTA/Tor Johnson
Feature image (above): Outrigger paddling is one of many fun activities at Grand Wailea on Maui. // © 2014 Grand Wailea
Over the decades, Hawaii has evolved from a predominantly sun-and-fun oasis into a diverse and compelling destination. Alongside the evolution of tourism to Hawaii, travel agents selling vacations in the Aloha State have grown increasingly insightful, tailoring recommendations and itineraries to meet the needs of a broader base of clients.
To help agents monitor what’s new in the islands, we offer this in-depth look at the hottest tourism trends shaping travel to Hawaii, accompanied by sales insights from industry executives and Hawaii wholesalers.
Connecting With People and Traditions
The Hawaiian culture has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, according to Kainoa Daines, director of sales for the Oahu Visitors Bureau. Time-honored customs are being revived, the Hawaiian language is flourishing and there is a renewed interest in preserving the past. As a result, cultural tourism in Hawaii is on the rise.
“We’re seeing a shift to more personal and meaningful fulfillment through travel,” Daines said. “Cultural tourism is providing the authentic experiences that travelers are craving.”
Visitors can interact with Hawaiian culture on many levels, from observing a traditional awa ceremony — an ancient ritual symbolizing open communication and gratitude — to sailing on a canoe much like the vessels used by early Polynesian explorers.
“Participating in activities designed to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture creates a greater sense of place,” Daines said. “Engaging with the community helps strengthen that bond, often leaving travelers inspired and energized. It puts the destination and its intricacies into perspective.”
Many hotels are making a concerted effort to introduce guests to Hawaii’s culture, said Jonna Jackson, senior director of global product for Classic Vacations. Jackson cited Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa on Oahu, as a prime example.
“Aulani does a great job educating its guests about the history of Hawaii and its people,” Jackson said. “Artists teach traditional crafts like lauhala bracelet-weaving and lei-making. During a star-gazing session, guests learn how the ancient Hawaiians navigated through Polynesia using only the stars to guide them.”
As experiential travel becomes more popular, there has been increased demand for cultural tourism experiences. Daines has seen interest across all demographics, although he said younger travelers tend to seek out more adventurous cultural tourism opportunities.
“I encourage visitors to attend one of our many cultural festivals and events to mingle with locals, sample our fare and participate in historic traditions,” Daines said. “Agents who identify each client’s specific interests, such as history or performing arts, can narrow down the many opportunities to connect with Hawaii’s culture.”
Giving Back to a Generous Destination
As a remote island chain 2,400 miles from the nearest landmass, Hawaii has a long history of environmental stewardship. Combine that with the fact that tourism is the state’s top industry and it’s no wonder Hawaii is a leader in ecotourism.
Tour operators are championing conservation around the islands. For example, Hawaii Forest and Trail is limiting the guest count on daily tours to diminish its impact on the environment, and Trilogy Excursions has won awards for its social responsibility.
To involve visitors in conservation and sustainability, many organizations are integrating educational sessions and volunteer opportunities into their programs. The Pacific Whale Foundation is among them. It offers weekly ways to contribute to the Hawaiian concept of malama aina (caring for the land), and the Surfrider Foundation leads beach clean ups.
“Giving back to the community is a great way to learn about the local environment while leaving the place a little better than you found it,” said Chris Kaiaokamalie, director of sales for the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau. “Once you make the connection with a place, especially somewhere as special as Hawaii, you want to know when you come back to visit that it will be just as beautiful.”
Hotels are adding eco-friendly activities to their guest programming as well. For example, clients can help maintain a Hawaiian taro garden, restore an ancient fishpond or plant a koa tree in honor of an event or person. On Maui, the visitors’ bureau regularly sends information on ecotourism opportunities for travelers to hotel concierge desks.
Jackson said that travelers want resorts to set a high standard for themselves when it comes to being green and limiting waste.
“We’re seeing many hotels in Hawaii really step up to the challenge,” Jackson said. “Many resorts have received green certifications and have adapted their policies to be more ecological.”
At the same time, new Hawaii properties are being built with the environment in mind, noted Jack Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays.
“They are using sustainable materials and incorporating elements that blend with and embrace the natural environment when possible,” Richards said. “Resorts are working hard to minimize the carbon footprint left behind.”
Bringing the Whole Family Along
When travel agents and other experts describe the goals of their family-oriented clients, they often use words like “reconnecting” and “rediscovering.”
“Families want destinations that can deliver a memorable multigenerational travel experience,” said Deanna Isbister, director of sales for the Big Island Visitors Bureau. “With activities that engage all ages and interests, Hawaii fits perfectly into that category.”
A slightly higher disposable income for both baby boomers and younger generations has translated into longer multigenerational stays and higher spending on the islands, Isbister said.
“These families want to be active together,” she said. “They are willing to do more adventurous outings like zipline rides and night swims with manta rays.”
But bringing the clan to Hawaii doesn’t necessarily mean parting with a lot of money, noted Jeff Mullen, president of Apple Vacations.
“We hear about kids simply spending a day at the beach building sand castles with their grandparents, something they will remember for years to come,” Mullen said. “Plus, with condos and rental homes, value-seekers are finding that a Hawaii multigenerational getaway can be affordable.”
Hawaii’s hotels are steadily enhancing their youth programs, designing pastimes that are fun, educational and distinctive to the destination, Isbister said.
“A good example is Four Seasons Resort Hualalai’s Kids For All Seasons program, which includes activities like canoe paddling, volcano building and eagle ray feeding,” he said. “Education is a key component that parents like to see built into programs.”
Hawaii has a range of options for family lodgings, from luxury hotels and resorts to comfortable condos offering multiple bedrooms and full kitchens.
“Families looking for a little more privacy and seclusion appreciate the current trend toward private resort residences that can accommodate large groups with ease,” Richards said.
Travel professionals recommend that families choose a home base that is close to a lot of activities with appeal to all members of the party.
“Waikiki, Kona, Poipu and Kaanapali are great locations for multigenerational groups,” Isbister said. “Consider partnering with a tour operator that can offer access to attractive group rates and bundled packages with components such as airfare, accommodations, a lei greeting, car rental and transfers.”
Savoring Hawaii’s Flavors
Wholesalers and island officials agree: Food tourism is surging, and Hawaii is answering the demand.
From new restaurants serving locally-sourced meals to chefs collaborating on pop-up dinners and special events, distinctive food experiences are available at any price point in the islands, according to Robyn Basso, senior director of travel industry partnerships for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.
“Visitors can taste the diversity of Hawaii through the rich ethnic flavors of local dishes,” Basso said. “Often, they’ll find that a passion for farm-to-table cuisine goes hand in hand with a deep appreciation for Hawaii’s cultural heritage.”
On Oahu, Honolulu ranks high as a culinary destination, with several chefs and restaurants nominated for James Beard Awards this year. On Maui, Wailea is gaining fame as a culinary destination and Hawaii Island’s Hilo is an up-and-coming foodie destination.
Mullen said that although Apple Vacations’ clients generally favor fine dining experiences, thanks to social media they are scouting out more unassuming local favorites such as shrimp trucks on Oahu or the best plate lunch on Maui.
“Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are recommending places vacationers would never have heard of five years ago,” Mullen said.
Along with new restaurants, farm tours are sprouting across the state, from wagon rides at Kahuku Farms and vodka tastings at Ocean Vodka to tours at Big Island Bees and Hamakua Mushrooms.
Richards has noticed that more Pleasant Holidays travelers are exploring the local farmers’ markets cropping up on each island.
“Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa hosts a popular farmers’ market every Tuesday and Thursday, inviting guests and locals to mingle and mix while sharing universal interests,” Richards said.
Basso said more clients are timing their vacations to coincide with one of Hawaii’s annual culinary events such as Kaanapali Fresh, Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, Taste of the Hawaiian Range, Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and Kapalua Food and Wine Festival.
“We’ve brought chefs with us to our events on the mainland, filmed commercial spots at local farms and helped promote culinary events,” Basso said. “Our new Hawaii Destination Specialist Program will highlight unique dining opportunities in Hawaii.”
A Perfect Place to Celebrate Love
Thanks to its beauty, convenience, affordability and diversity, Hawaii continues to dominate as one of the world’s best destinations for romance travel, from weddings and honeymoons to anniversaries, vow renewals and even babymoons.
In 2012, the number of travelers who got married in Hawaii rose 5.1 percent from the year prior, said Maile Brown, director of sales for the Kauai Visitors Bureau. A boost in airlift from major markets around the world is also helping the state’s wedding industry remain highly competitive.
“In addition, since the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawaii and in other U.S. states, we’ve seen an increase in LGBT travelers looking to either tie the knot or honeymoon in Hawaii,” Brown said.
Since romance travelers are typically celebrating a special occasion, they tend to spend more money on the trip, Brown noted.
“I hear from many agents that couples coming to Hawaii are upgrading to higher category accommodations, with oceanview and oceanfront rooms and suites selling well,” said Brown. “There are more luxury resorts in the marketplace, and many are putting together specialized offerings such as private beach dinners and oceanside couples’ massages.”
As some of Hawaii’s competing destinations enhance their wedding services, couples who book with Pleasant Holidays are requesting more added values and are looking for exclusivity and off-the-beaten-path venues, Richards said.
Several wholesalers noted that more couples traveling to Hawaii for a wedding want elements of Hawaiian traditions and culture incorporated into their ceremony, such as island-style music, flowers and food.
“Hawaii hotels are offering comprehensive wedding packages, and competitive prices and attractions are promoting venues for unique wedding ceremonies,” Brown said. “Most of these are commissionable to travel agents.”
HVCB has assembled an aggressive romance-marketing program through a variety of platforms.
“Agents should encourage clients to get out of their comfort zone a bit to spark romance and create lifetime memories,” Brown said. “If time allows, take a longer trip and visit multiple islands for a rich and diverse experience.”
New tourism trends will likely emerge as the destination continues to evolve. For now, however, the islands’ tourism industry is a textbook example of how to keep a classic destination thriving.