Reasons Visitors Like Hawaii Less

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - August 08, 2007

We all know that our tourism industry is the lifeblood of our economy. Recent stories regarding the health of Hawaii tourism have been mixed. Although we are enjoying strong numbers in visitor arrivals, we are still off from a year ago, and the disturbing statistic is the decrease in satisfaction regarding the Hawaii vacation experience.

I was fortunate to have worked in the cruise industry for years with the opportunity to travel extensively from Bermuda through the Caribbean, from South America to the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), through the Panama Canal and in the Mexican Riviera. I also have traveled through most of the Mainland U.S., Canada and Alaska. I have traveled to Europe, Tahiti and, most recently, New Zealand. I mention this simply to offer my perspective on the travel industry.

One of the stories regarding Hawaii tourism is the loss of our No. 1 ranking as a honeymoon destination. According to the most recent Modern Bride magazine survey, Hawaii (which has held the top spot for a decade) has fallen to second place behind Italy. According to state figures, honeymoon arrivals have gradually fallen almost 2 percent since 2006. When we entertain almost a quarter million honeymooners, 2 percent is a substantial decline. Following Italy and Hawaii are Tahiti, Costa Rica, Mexico, France, Maldives, Anguilla, Fiji and Greece.

A companion news story tells of a drop in Japanese visitors. Long the bread and butter of the Hawaii tourism industry, the number of Japanese visitors to Hawaii has dipped the first half of 2007 by 7.4 percent from the same time last year. This cannot be good news to the folks at the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

These stories highlight some of the long-term challenges facing Hawaii tourism.

I know there will be the inevitable litany of academic explanations from government and industry experts. I don’t discount the observations nor the recommendations that will emerge from their analysis. That said, here’s my take.

Let’s face it. Hawaii has become damn expensive. The average family considering a vacation will select three of four destinations. They will compare the prices and determine the best value for their vacation dollar. Regardless of the explanations as to why we are so expensive, that family is going to choose the place that delivers to their bottom line.

Unfortunately, Hawaii loses out to others simply based on price. Other destinations can promise exotic and exciting experiences, too, but at a lower cost.

If someone chooses Hawaii over other destinations, it is usually because of our unique culture and sheer, natural beauty. We are remarkably talented in crafting commercial messages that extol the Hawaiian culture with gorgeous backdrops of sun-soaked beaches and dramatic sunsets. I applaud the professionals who produce these messages, but are we truly delivering on these images? To what extent is this wonderful culture truly shared? Is the true cultural experience found at a hotel luau or a circle island tour? Can we proclaim the best representation of the Hawaii experience is found on Kalakaua Avenue? If we send our tourists outside of Waikiki, where were the pictures of gridlocked traffic and dilapidated buildings in these slick advertisements?

What is the experience of tourists when they do come into the local community? Are they welcomed with open arms, or is there a palpable disdain for their presence? How is the customer service in our stores and restaurants when it comes to tourists?

The most effective advertising is word of mouth. Are we sending our tourists back to talk with their friends, families, co-workers and acquaintances with a truly beautiful experience, or are they armed with negative thoughts which will be what they remember, and talk about, most?

Here is our immediate job. We have to increase the value of our tourism experience. The reduction of fees and taxes on tourism is essential. The recent increase in the GET on Oahu is impactful. The bottle deposit fee makes a difference. The increase to the TAT (Transient Accommodation Tax) is noticeable. Increases in rental car fees and the taxes on a gallon of gas approaching 60 cents means something. We must reduce the governmental cost on business and tourists. Creating a less expensive environment will encourage increased visitation, which leads to more spending, which will translate to greater revenues.

Tourists need to be treated with respect. This is the economy we have created and we must all contribute to its success. Virtually every family is affected by the tourism dollar. Why jeopardize our collective livelihoods with anti-tourism sentiments and actions? I know we cannot mandate or legislate behavior. However, this should be as much a PSA campaign to educate our citizenry as eating fruits and vegetables. One of the more accurate spots to hit the airwaves followed a $20 bill changing hands from a tourist to several locals. The message is clear; whether you like it or not, we need tourism to survive. Let’s not kill the proverbial golden egg-laying goose.

I realize this topic is complex. But if we don’t master the basics, can we truly expect to succeed in the long term? Changes in mentality and action are necessary or the headlines we are reading today will be the headlines of tomorrow.

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