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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 7, 2006

Tourism remains on track so far

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

People jumped back into the ocean at Waikiki Beach, where signs warning of sewage contamination have been removed.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Tom and Chris Walters, septuagenarians from California, have been regular Hawai'i vacationers for 25 years. They said they were enjoying the shore and not going into the water at Waikiki yesterday.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Two girls from Japan played in polluted Kailua Beach waters yesterday despite signs in English and Japanese warning of the health danger.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawai'i's image as a tourist paradise has taken one hit after another this year with record rainfall, a tragic flood on Kaua'i, sewage spills and closed beaches.

"Sewage, Rain Wash Vacations Down the Drain," said the headline on a Los Angeles Times story this week. Images of warning signs on Waikiki Beach were played around the world.

Still, Hawai'i tourism officials say they are not alarmed, adding that the string of bad news has yet to have a major impact on the state's No. 1 industry.

"We know there is a problem, but we don't know how big it is," said Hawai'i Tourism Authority president and CEO Rex Johnson. "We didn't have tons and tons of cancellations. The booking pace remains fairly solid."

Tourism officials said they have been monitoring news stories about Hawai'i for weeks and are closely watching the industry to see what impact they have.

The latest concern is the tragic story of a 34-year-old mortgage broker who landed in the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor and was in critical condition yesterday, fighting flesh-eating bacteria.

State tourism marketers have prepared a public-relations campaign to counter the recent bad news out of Hawai'i, but are reluctant to launch it until the impact of the rainy weather and sewage spills has played out.

"For a while it was rain," said Frank Haas, the tourism authority's marketing director. "Then it was a dam bursting with loss of life. ... And that was followed by the sewage spill. And that was followed by the Ala Wai incident. As this thing evolves and morphs, the character of this changes. We don't want to go out with a campaign when we haven't fully realized what all the implications of that are."

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau, the state's marketer in North America, will be responsible for the campaign to offset recent events. The bureau is ready to start now but is holding off while the situation is evolving, adjusting its message.

"We are continually assessing what the impacts are, and the decision to run a campaign or not and/or the scale of that campaign will depend on that assessment," said Haas. "If the story tends to blow over quickly, we may simply have the same marketing message that we already have on the books. If there's an impact on the business, we might assess that situation differently."

So far, hotels report little change in bookings. Occupancy statewide was down just 0.6 percent last week from a year earlier.

Outrigger Enterprises president and CEO David Carey said the company has some cancellations from local residents, but few from Mainland visitors.

Peter Shaindlin, chief operating officer of Halekulani Corp., said he's noticed "a bit of falloff" at the Halekulani and Waikiki Parc hotels, but that it was mostly from a younger crowd. But he added, "We are not seeing any dramatic decline."

Vacationers said yesterday that the sewage spill was putting a damper on their visit, but not enough to make them regret coming.

Ohio residents Amy and Kevin Hindel decided not to go in the water, even though a posting in their hotel room said it was OK. Instead they lay on the beach in Waikiki.

"I saw something in the news about a guy with an infection who got his leg amputated, and they were thinking about taking another leg, and I thought, well, we have nice pools, so we'll lay out here and get a tan and go swimming in the pool," said Kevin Hindel, 25.

The Hindels said they were still enjoying their vacation and were looking forward to a dinner cruise, shopping and possibly whale-watching. "There's some other things to do other than swim in the ocean," Hindel said.

California residents Tom and Chris Walters lounged on the beach in front of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider and stayed out of the water. They said government officials should have put up contamination warning signs on the beaches immediately after the Ala Wai sewage spill. They said they'll still return to Hawai'i and didn't think the recent news would discourage many people from coming.

"People, next week, they won't even remember it," Chris Walters said.

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.