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Hawaii's upscale strategy aims at big spenders

By Thomas WattersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 1987


IN THE next three or four years, about 6,500 new hotel rooms will be added to the more than 67,000 rooms that already crowd many of Hawaii's beaches and resort areas. If you want to stay in one of those new hotels, you'd better bring plenty of money as well as your camera, suntan oil, and aloha shirt. That's because the price of every one of those new rooms will be at least $300 a day.

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After decades of being known as a tropical resort for middle-class Americans, where low prices on hotel rooms made up for the high cost of getting here, Hawaii is moving upscale and trying to attract visitors who can afford to stay longer, spend more money while they're here, or both.

That includes affluent Westerners and middle-class Japanese, for whom the strong yen makes Hawaii a cheap vacation.

In Hawaii, number-crunchers put visitors into two main groups: westbound and eastbound. The great bulk of the westbound visitors come from the mainland United States and Canada, with many also from Latin America and Europe.

Most of the eastbound visitors are from Japan. Streaming in at a rate of more than a million a year, the Japanese make up the fastest-growing portion, or nearly 20 percent, of all tourists.

Their importance can be seen by a number of things, the most noticeable of which are the signs.

From elevators to exits, from buses to beaches, Japanese and English instructions share space on signs. Menus are printed in both languages, as are travel brochures, maps, and instructions for checking out posted on the back of hotel doors.

The visitor industry - including tourists and a growing convention business - is now Hawaii's leading engine for economic growth.

``Tourism is far and away the most important industry in the islands today and it will continue to be,'' says Stanley Hong, president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau.

Last year, tourists spent about $5.6 billion on the islands, putting that business far ahead of the No. 2 industry, construction, at $2.1 billion; and defense, which accounted for $2 billion. Tourism gets much of the credit for construction spending, too, since a great deal of it is for hotels and resorts like the vast Hyatt Waikoloa resort on the ``Big Island'' of Hawaii, which will add $400 million or so to the state's economy during the course of its construction.

But as the engines in today's automobiles are much more complex than a decade ago, Hawaii's economic engine of tourism is much more complex than just a couple of years ago.

In 1986, a record 5.6 million visitors came to Hawaii, a 14.8 percent increase over 1985. When the numbers for 1987 come in, however, they may show a very small increase, if any. In the first half of this year, the total visitor count was just about the same as the first half of last year.

There is a difference, however, in where those visitors are coming from. While the number of westbound visitors has been down 4.4 percent this year, eastbound traffic saw a 15 percent increase.

The falling dollar gets most of the credit for the increase in Japanese visitors. The yen now has twice the dollar-buying power it had two years ago, making it much cheaper for the Japanese to pay for hotel rooms, tour buses, souvenirs, and film. Also, many of the hotels in Hawaii - including all but two in Honolulu's Waikiki area - are owned by Japanese investors.