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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tourism bouncing back after economic, flu crises

Dinah: What role does the HTA play that is different from the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau? If there's duplication, could this perhaps be an area to cut costs as we deal with the poor economy?

Mike McCartney: HTA was established in 1998 through a legislative act. It serves as the lead state agency for tourism that helps to coordinate the industry and its employees, government and the community to maximize the benefits for the visitor industry and Hawai'i.

HTA contracts with the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), a marketing organization, to market Hawai'i in North America and attract group business to Hawai'i. HVCB is one of six marketing organizations that HTA contracts with to market Hawai'i. The others are Hawai'i Tourism Japan, Hawai'i Tourism Asia, Hawai'i Tourism Oceania, Hawai'i Tourism Europe and SMG for the Hawai'i Convention Center.

HTA has a global vision and our marketing contractors are focused on specific geographic markets. This maximizes our resources and allows us to be more efficient, effective and productive.

Marie Barnes: When will the Japanese return?

McCartney: There are indications that the Japanese visitors are beginning to return.

After seeing signs of growth in the first quarter from the Japanese market, we saw an abrupt decline in visitor arrivals in May when the first cases of H1N1 were reported in Hawai'i. In response to the decline in arrivals, we flew up to Japan to meet with government officials and industry partners to discuss recovery initiatives as well as the H1N1 virus.

While in Japan, we were encouraged by the interest of the Japanese to travel to Hawai'i. Preliminary bookings show an increase in arrivals this fall, and we are working on a concentrated marketing effort in Japan that should generate further interest to travel to Hawai'i.

Other promising signs are that ANA added an additional 23 flights in July and August to accommodate summer travel. Right (now) more flights are being added for Silver Week in September.

Another great event was the imperial couple's recent visit to Hawai'i. Although tourism-related benefits were really secondary, the visit signifies Hawai'i and Japan's longstanding relationship which is about mutual respect, trust and friendship.

Jeff: Why does HTA get such a large chunk of taxpayer money?

Mccartney: The HTA receives 34.2 percent of the transient accommodations tax (TAT) collection that is assessed on hotels, vacation rentals and other accommodations. It's important to note that revenue from TAT collections come primarily from visitors.

Le-ah: I read about a visa waiver program for Korea. What happened to visitors from Korea? Is HTA still marketing to them?

McCartney: Korea was part of the global economic crisis and the won weakened against the U.S. dollar, which slowed travel. The number of Korean visitors to Hawai'i is on the rise despite the economic recession and the impact of H1N1.

In recent months we have seen renewed interest in travel to Hawai'i as the won begins to strengthen against the U.S. dollar. This year, we are projecting that 44,000 visitors from South Korea will visit Hawai'i, a 16 percent increase over 2008.

Sally: What is the HTA doing to address the decline in visitors?

McCartney: To put things into perspective, leisure travel is down everywhere in the world right now and compared with other destinations, Hawai'i is actually doing better than a lot of our competition. Our main goal right now at the HTA is to increase visitor arrivals and maintain and/or grow our market share.

To address the volatility of our market, our board established a $10 million marketing opportunity fund that gives HTA the flexibility to fund activities that will boost short-term travel to Hawai'i. From that fund, HTA has approved $7.1 million to support aggressive initiatives.

We are already seeing positive results from our marketing efforts: May and June arrival numbers were up from U.S. West and we are optimistic that this trend will continue with other marketing efforts planned for the fall. Air Canada will add additional flights between Hawai'i and Canada this winter; West Jet also plans to increase their number of weekly flights this fall.

Through research, we are focusing on the high-potential traveler to Hawai'i. We have identified who that traveler is and are putting our marketing plans and resources behind targeting that traveler.

Robertson: How is Hawai'i competing with other sand-and-surf destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean?

McCartney: Hawai'i is actually doing better than a lot of our direct competitors like Mexico and Caribbean.

What makes Hawai'i unique is that we are not just a sand-and-surf destination. We are defined by our culture and people.

Yes, it is important to increase arrivals during these troubled times, but we must also continue to protect our natural resources, preserve the Hawaiian culture and support Hawai'i's tourism product. Without product, we don't have anything to market; it's a delicate balance.

SISTA: Downturn and crisis compel reassessment. What are your thoughts on the values or principles Hawai'i should hold close as we reassess/rethink tourism in our state, going forward?

McCartney: We should always remember the values and principles of our host culture and our sense of people, place and community.

North Shore: Given that several research studies supported by the HTA have shown that over half of the visitors to O'ahu end up visiting the North Shore at some point in their visit, is there anything specific you can say HTA can do to help the North Shore region improve its parks and other natural and cultural resources that are so heavily utilized by literally millions of visitors (and O'ahu residents as well)?

McCartney: Preserving and protecting our natural resources is an important initiative for HTA. Annually, HTA spends a minimum of $2 million to fund projects that help to improve and protect our natural resources.

Our job is to find the proper balance between environment, community and tourism. We work closely with agencies including DLNR to ensure that we can accommodate visitors' needs as well as residents'.