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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 14, 2002

Skyrocketing marathon entries to boost tourism

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i could get as much as a $61 million economic boost next month from the Honolulu Marathon, which as of yesterday has drawn the highest number of entrants since 1997.

More than 28,000 people have signed up for the Dec. 8 marathon so far, with more than 16,000 Japanese entrants registered — more than double the number signed up last year at the same time, according to the Honolulu Marathon Association.

Association president Jim Barahal said he expects a final count of 30,000 to 31,000 runners this year, up more than 27 percent from last year when 23,513 people entered the race.

The boost is a welcome surprise to many in the state's tourism industry, which has struggled with weak visitor arrivals all year as well as a 16.8 percent decrease in Japanese air travel to O'ahu through September.

"If we have a strong showing this year then it just shows that there's a lot more confidence in the market and that Hawai'i continues to be considered a safe destination in spite of some of the concerns recently," said Joe Toy, president of hotel consulting firm Hospitality Advisors LLC. "I expect we'll see a nice spike in hotel occupancy and good business for Waikiki."

Race organizers said one reason for the increase in registrants could be that the marathon is marking its 30th anniversary.

Barahal also said there may be pent-up demand from last year when some runners may have decided to skip the race in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The increase in entrants from Japan comes as a particularly welcome boost.

The marathon, which had long been a draw for thousands of Japanese visitors — with 70 percent of runners in 1991 coming from Japan — had seen gradual decreases over the years to just 38.9 percent last year.

This year, about 57.5 percent of entrants are Japanese as airlines and tour wholesalers have been particularly motivated to seek a boost from the marathon.

The Japanese visitor industry — including lead sponsor Japan Airlines, JTB and others — are "really selling the marathon because the visitors from Japan have been down," said Eugene Tian, tourism research branch chief for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Japanese "are not coming for vacation as much as before, but if there is an event, the travel agencies really sell the event," he said.

Japan Airlines this year increased advertising for the marathon in cities outside of Tokyo and Osaka, Barahal said.

Japan Airlines president Isao Kaneko also has been encouraging Japanese to run in the marathon, and the airline's flights for the event are full, according to Hiroto Baba, vice president and regional manager for Hawai'i.

The Japan Travel Bureau has distributed Honolulu Marathon brochures at all its regional sales centers and offers food, massage services, a recovery area and Internet service to JTB customers.

"We market it very actively," said Yujiro Kuwabara, general manager of tour planning and marketing for JTB Hawaii. "It's one of the biggest events for us."

Although some initial registrants end up canceling in the weeks before the marathon, this year JTB's business for the Honolulu Marathon will reach 2000 levels, Kuwabara said, noting that there are so many JTB customers traveling to Hawai'i for the marathon that it has been difficult to find flights for some.

Of the estimated $61 million in spending for this year's marathon, Japanese spending is projected to make up about $34 million of that, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

In addition, the state estimates there is usually one additional visitor for every runner, amounting to about 24,250 Japanese in town for the marathon and nearly 18,000 others.

What's also good news for the Hawai'i visitor industry is that in recent years, Honolulu Marathon runners have started treating the trip more like a vacation, Kuwabara said.

"It used to be the Honolulu Marathon runner was very price-conscious. They're only there for the marathon. They don't spend anything. They don't buy anything. They just go home," he said. "But nowadays, not any more."

More marathon runners go on optional tours, take dinner cruises and go shopping, and they stay at everything from budget to mid-range to luxury hotels, he said.

Many say the December boost in visitors, particularly from Japan, is badly needed.

"It comes at a time when people would not normally travel at their own discretion," said Outrigger Enterprises Inc. chief executive David Carey. "If people have a good reason to do something, to come for a marathon or come for an event, then they can look beyond the circumstances and come for the trip. So there's an opportunity to come to Hawai'i."

The marathon won't solve all of Hawai'i's tourism problems this year, though.

"Other than the marathon," Carey said, "business is still somewhat soft."

Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470 or kyamanouchi@honoluluadvertiser.com.