By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
The numbers have hinted for months, but now its official: 2000 was the best year in Hawaii tourism history, bringing a record 6.98 million visitors to the Islands and restoring a once-shattered enthusiasm to industry executives.
"We had the most successful year in the history of the company," said Kelvin Bloom, chief operating officer of Aston Hotels and Resorts. "We expected it to be good, but we were very pleasantly surprised by how good it turned out to be."
The arrival figure, released yesterday by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, surpassed the previous high set in 1997 by more than 200,000. The record arrivals also nudged the states hotels to their highest rates and occupancy in a decade nearly 78 percent for the year according to one report and to record revenues.
Executives credited the strong U.S. economy and more focused marketing efforts by the state for the records and the nearly 4 percent gain in visitors over 1999. Some added hurricanes in the Caribbean to the list of things that moved people toward Hawaii.
The steamrolling Mainland economy provided more than two-thirds of the states visitors, a nearly 5 percent gain over the previous year. The Japan market, though still lagging behind its highs of the 1990s, sent nearly 2 million visitors Hawaiis way, a 1.7 percent increase over 1999.
And heres the kicker: Oahu led the charge.
Like a Cinderella who finally found her slipper, Oahu was the only one of Hawaiis six major islands to register an annual gain in visitors. After years of sagging numbers, Oahu saw a nearly 5 percent gain in arrivals over 1999, while Kauai, Maui and the Big Island all logged losses.
"1999 was a very good year for the Neighbor Islands, and a very bad year for Oahu," said Pearl Imada Iboshi, the departments chief economist. "Part of this is that Oahu has come back some."
In 1999, the Neighbor Islands led the states modest growth in visitors, while Oahu remained flat. In 1998, Oahu suffered a nearly 6 percent loss in arrivals.
But there are other factors adding to Oahus success. Industry executives cited a strong lineup at the Hawaii Convention Center including groups such as Lions Clubs International and its 35,000 conferees. Renovations and new attractions in Waikiki which will total more than $250 million in 2001 and more focused marketing efforts may also have added to the increases, many said.
And although the Neighbor Islands may have lost arrivals, hotel occupancy grew more than 3 percent on all of them, according to Honolulu-based Hospitality Advisors LLC and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
"2000 was the best year in the resorts history," said Danny Breatchel, marketing director for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, which opened four years ago on the Big Islands Kohala Coast. "Everybody up and down this coast seems to have had an incredible year."
Maui hotels also boasted a record year one that had some sending guests not just to other properties, but to other islands. In February and March, some visitors, including those with reservations, were housed on Lanai and even Oahu when there was no room at the inn, said Marsha Wienert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.
The apparent discrepancy between climbing hotel occupancy rates and sinking arrivals suggests changing travel patterns, more kamaaina travel, and slightly longer stays on most islands, Iboshi said.
Single-island only visits were up more than 6 percent last year, meaning more visitors spent their entire vacation in one place. That dynamic may have cut into the day-trips that can boost Neighbor Island arrival figures, Iboshi said. And since visitors were only in one place, they tended to stay there longer, which would raise occupancy numbers. Also, about 5 percent more visitors stayed in hotels in 2000 instead of bed and breakfasts and other lodging that doesnt figure into the occupancy statistics.
Although many executives said they were hopeful all year, they never dared utter the "R" word.
The moment they knew they had a record?
"January 1," of 2001, said Tom Herman, acting general manager of the Doubletree Alana Waikiki Hotel. "That was about the only time we could really take a chance and breathe deep and say, "Its finally in the bag. But now weve got 2001 to work on."
Which is already proving a challenge. Group business is slow at hotels and the convention center, and a potentially slowing Mainland economy threatens to dampen peoples inclination to travel.
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