Hawaii's Tourism Bounces Back With Japanese Arriving in Droves

STROLLING down Kalakaua Blvd. here, Masahiko Shindo and his wife, Setsuko are doing what thousands of other tourists are doing on the main drag of Oahu's top tourist area: shopping for bargains between restful days on the beach, and bus tours to areas of natural beauty.

``I came this year because the yen is good against the dollar,'' says Mr. Shindo, who runs his own trading company in Japan. ``And these islands don't have the reputation for violence of the mainland.''

The Tokyo couple's presence here this summer has been a particular reason to rejoice for both merchants and tour operators.

It signals a return of Hawaii's most prolific market after a devastating falloff in tourism numbers since 1990 - and specifically from the Japanese last year.

The Japanese, who account for 35 percent of Hawaii's annual $8 billion to $9 billion tourist income, stayed away in droves last year.

The reasons were recession at home and negative images of the second-most-popular American destination for Japanese - Southern California.

``Two Japanese students were killed in Los Angeles,'' says Mr. Shindo, recalling a highly-publicized murder case that followed 1992's riots, 1993's fires, and this year's earthquake. ``That left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.''

But concerted pushes by both California and Hawaii tourist agencies, a stronger yen, and Japan'semergence from recession could make 1994 a record year for Japanese tourism abroad.

According to Chigusa Imaoka, marketing and planning manager at the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), the number of Japanese expected to travel abroad this year has been upwardly revised from earlier projections from 12.4 million to 13.3 million, an increase of 11.4 percent over last year.

Imaoka says Japanese arrivals to Hawaii could increase by the same margin, which would set an all-time record.

``It appears our four-year downturn is finished,'' says Barbara Okamoto, market research director for the Hawaii Visitor's Bureau. ``The industry here is thrilled.''

Okamoto's bureau statistics for the first quarter of this year confirm a 15.6 percent increase in arrivals from Japan.

THE good news is mitigated somewhat by statistics showing the Japanese are spending less per person: an average $307 per day compared to $345 in 1992.

But the $307 figure still soars above that of any other nationality, including Americans who spend an average $116 per person.

Japanese tourism to Hawaii had increased for a decade until a sour economy kept huge numbers at home last year. Because tourism accounts for about 40 percent of Hawaii's economy, the loss of about 1 million tourists a year through the '90s has reverberated through the islands.

``Hawaii is, like California, on a recovery that has come later and is more fragile than the rest of the country,'' says Paul Brewbaker, chief economist for the Bank of Hawaii. ``But the biggest reason the state is starting to get it back together is its tourism rebound of 1994.''

Surveys of tourists find the biggest reason people visit Hawaii is to see the island's natural beauty and enjoy its beaches, according to HVB's Okamoto.

But partly because of downturns in recent years, and a too-heavy dependence on tourist income, several moves are afoot to diversify the industry and even broaden its definition.

``Tourism is the state's largest industry but it produces only low-paying jobs,'' says Fred Hemmings, a sports promoter who is also running for lieutenant governor. ``That's not good for tourism or the economy.''

One way to get more people to the islands, he and others say, is to have more and better-organized, participatory sporting events such as inter-island canoe races, marathons, and rodeos.

To create alternatives to the usual sunbathe-swim-and-shop Hawaii vacation, Mr. Hemmings has been hired by a New Zealand investment firm which owns one-third of the rural island of Molokai. The idea: get people to camp, hike, horseback ride, and surf on the Hawaii of old - without hotels, golf courses, and shopping strips.

And the HVB is beginning to showcase the ethnic groups that reside here by expanding cultural museums and historical parks as well as designing more traditional Hawaiian ceremonies.

Hawaii is also reaching out for non-tourist visitor income by breaking ground on a major convention center in early 1995, for a 1998 opening.

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