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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009

Japanese visitors may soon be back

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Japanese visitor traffic to Hawai'i hard-hit by swine flu fears last month is looking up for the fall, with major tour wholesalers in Japan working to increase the number of flight seats available to the Islands, according to the head of the state's lead tourism agency.

Mike McCartney, president and chief executive officer of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, returned from a trip to Japan last week. And he said the agency plans additional outreach to the important visitor market.

After showing some signs of growing strength this year, Japanese visitor market abruptly reversed course in May when the first cases of H1N1, or swine flu, were reported in Hawai'i.

McCartney was accompanied on his Japan trip by David Uchiyama, HTA's marketing vice president. And he said two board members Sharon Weiner and Kyoko Kimura paid their own way to Japan as well.

Uchiyama said next month's visitor forecast from Japan remains slow but August shows some recovery and "September starts to really take off." He said booking numbers rise to about 30 percent more than last year.

And one wholesaler said he had 1,200 people waitlisted who want to travel to Hawai'i but couldn't book a flight, according to Uchiyama.

Hawai'i's image as a good place to visit will get a fortuitous boost from the visit planned next month by Japan's emperor. "The emperor coming here is a significant event for Japan and Hawai'i that is very positive," McCartney said.

He said five major tour wholesalers said they plan to form a limited liability partnership to charter additional seats to Hawai'i. "It was very good news," McCartney said.

"There is a real sharp increase in interest in traveling from Japan in the next 24 months," Uchiyama said.

Hawai'i reported its first swine flu case May 5, and the number of cases has since grown to more than 500, but there have been no critical or fatal cases reported here.

Hawai'i's No. 1 industry has slumped over the past year, with months of double-digit declines in tourist arrivals and drops in revenues as hotels and others in the industry offer hefty discounts to lure visitors.

The numbers of Japanese visitors also has fallen, but they remain a valued and important part of the visitor mix, as loyal and traditionally high-spending visitors.

Uchiyama said some of the Japan tour specialists said their customers tried vacations to Southeast Asia and other destinations.

Now, he said many are ready to return to Hawai'i with the attitude "It was a good deal but it wasn't Hawai'i."

Today, McCartney and Uchiyama will be outlining a $627,000 marketing proposal that will blanket two key commuter trains in Tokyo and Osaka with images of Hawai'i and also feature television advertising.

The intensive advertising includes posters, images and even strap-hangers with Hawai'i messages. Some of the messages focus on 50 things to do in the islands. And Uchiyama said that campaign could prompt visitors to explore the Neighbor Islands and extend their stay.

Last year, 1.145 million visitors from Japan came to Hawai'i. Uchiyama projects a small increase this year to 1.170 million.