Japanese tourists continue to stay away
By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer
For months now, the number of passengers flying to the Islands from Japan has been down as much as 40 percent, and there is little certainty of when high-spending Japanese, once a stalwart of the visitor industry, will become a dependable source of business once again.
Advertiser library photo May 6, 2002
Exploring Hawai'i still has allure for Japanese planning their vacations, but fear of SARS abroad has led many to cancel trips.
Advertiser library photo May 6, 2002
At the minimum, travel from Japan is not expected to be anywhere near as strong as it was before 2001.
A clear sign of the sluggishness is a series of flight cuts based on a slowdown in bookings by Japan Airlines, the major carrier between Japan and Hawai'i.
SARS severe acute respiratory syndrome is the major factor keeping Japanese from traveling.
"I think we'll have to wait until the SARS problem is solved," said Eiji Miyamoto, general manager in Hawai'i of ANA Hallo Tours, where group bookings have been weak. "We have to prevent SARS problems from coming into Hawai'i. That's the most important thing."
Miyamoto hopes business will recover to year-ago levels by August, though that would require a 40 percent improvement in business.
The Japanese remain among the most skittish of international travelers. Until they are assured it is safe and comfortable to travel, they are likely to remain reluctant travelers. It's because of their cautiousness that the end of the Iraq War brought no discernable rebound in Japanese travel.
The SARS effect is layered on top of a weak Japanese economy that has depressed travel to Hawai'i for years.
In 1996, for example, 2.1 million Japanese came to Hawai'i, spending $3.5 billion here, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This year, the Hawai'i Tourism Authority hopes 1.5 million will come and spend $2.1 billion. That amounts to 600,000 fewer people and $1.4 billion dollars less flowing into the state's economy.
Visitors from the Mainland have helped to make up for some of the losses in Japanese tourists, but their numbers have not fully offset the decline in Japanese visitors. And Mainlanders tend to spend less.
For businesses that are structured to cater to Japanese, Mainland visitors are of little help.
This summer and the first months of fall will be key periods for Japanese tourism as they will signal how businesses will end up for the year. So far the signs are mixed: summer bookings appear anemic, with some strengthening in the fall.
Steve Kawagishi, chief executive of the Japan Hawai'i Travel Association, a group representing Japanese tour operators, has written off the summer and said he is hoping for a recovery after July.
But any recovery is expected to be a challenge because worries about the risks of SARS are keeping people away.
"The Japanese people don't even want to go to the airport," said Ryokichi Tamaki, vice president of Japanese tour wholesaler Jalpak International. He said the company is starting to sell packages for the summer and formed promotional partnerships with hotels and other tourism businesses to get through this rough patch. "We are all in the same boat," Tamaki said.
JTB, another major Japanese tour wholesaler, is also feeling the impact of SARS-related concerns and is developing advertising alliances to boost bookings for the summer.
The slowdown in Japanese travel has hit hardest on O'ahu, where Japanese visitors made up about 34 percent of all visitors last year.
Noelani Wheeler, director of marketing for the O'ahu Visitors Bureau, said geopolitical events and health issues in the first quarter clearly slowed travel in Japan. "We do know that Japan is soft, and we anticipate that it will continue to be relatively soft," she said.
Many in the tourism industry say there's no immediate sign that Hawai'i will ever again see Japanese visitors achieving levels of 2 million and more.
For international travel, "9-11 has this sort of general risk that doesn't go away," said Duty Free Shoppers' Sharon Weiner. And now, "everyone's hopeful that there will be a quick and speedy control of the SARS epidemic, but who knows?"
The Japanese who are coming are younger and more adventurous. Families and seniors are less willing to risk travel, Weiner said.
Weiner is hoping that after the SARS crisis settles down, Hawai'i will have a competitive advantage in attracting Japanese over other areas in Asia.
"The good news for us is that even if the SARS epidemic is contained there will be an inherent reluctance to go to China by the Japanese. There will be a hangover," Weiner said. "They'll want a place that is clean and safe and wholesome. ... We have every piece in place."
Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.