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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hawaii tourism's signs of recovery reach Neighbor Islands

By Alan Yonan Jr.
Advertiser Staff Writer

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The Neighbor Islands, hardest hit by the state's prolonged tourism slump, are finally beginning to see signs of recovery.

Visitor arrivals and spending rose statewide in January for the second month in a row, led by gains on the Big Island, Maui and Kaua'i, the Hawai'i Tourism Authority reported yesterday. It was the first time since the downturn began nearly two years ago that visitor spending posted back-to-back monthly gains.

The state welcomed 532,737 visitors in January, up 2 percent from the same month a year earlier, according to the report. Those arriving by air spent $983.3 million, 3.5 percent more than they did the previous January.

"We're encouraged that visitor expenditures increased for the second straight month, the first increases since the departure of Aloha and ATA airlines in early 2008," said Marsha Wienert, the state's tourism liaison.

While the tourism downturn has stretched from one end of the island chain to the other, O'ahu has fared relatively better than the Neighbor Islands, where lodging is generally more expensive.

That dynamic was flipped in January, with the Neighbor Islands outperforming O'ahu.

The Big Island saw the largest increase in both arrivals and spending, which rose 4.8 percent and 15.3 percent respectively. That was a marked turnaround for the island, which experienced a 7.4 percent loss of visitors and a 11.6 percent decline in spending in 2009.

Attendance has been slowly improving at the World Botanical Gardens near Akaka Falls on the Big Island's Hāmākua Coast, said Phyllis Segawa, operations manager.

"Business is still slow, but this January was better than last January," Segawa said.

The attraction, on a former sugar plantation, added a zip line, which has helped bring in a more diverse group of visitors, she said.

"We're reaching out to entire family. Grandma can go on the garden tour while dad and the kids go to the zip line."

Maui and Kaua'i also recorded modest increases in visitors and spending. The last time Maui had an increase in arrivals was September 2009, and visitor spending had not been up on the island since November 2007.

Both the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and the University of Hawai'i Economic Research organization are forecasting slight increases in visitor arrivals in 2010 after three straight years of declines.

While data from DBEDT and UHERO indicate the tourism industry has only recently started to stabilize, private-sector economist Paul Brewbaker said he believes the industry actually began pulling out of its dive much earlier.

One of the things that has constrained the recovery is not the lack of demand from potential visitors, but a shortage of flights to the Islands he said.

That situation has finally began to correct itself, with airlines announcing that they plan to boost the number of passenger seats to Hawai'i by 5.6 percent this spring, Brewbaker said.

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