Monday, January 3, 2000

Whale watchers
are golden for
tourist industry

A study estimates 1999 revenue
for the state at up to $27 million

By Lori Tighe


Humpback whales do more than mate and splash around in Hawaii. The endangered species earned $19 million to $27 million for the state in 1999, according to the first study done to measure the species' economic power.

Humpback whales also play a growing role in Hawaii's ocean tour-boat business, which grew an estimated 25 percent between 1990 and 1999, according to the study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The numbers prove whale watching is a very important industry," said Allen Tom, manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary based on Maui, which cosponsored the study.

"You have this huge, million-dollar industry around this endangered species," Tom said.

"If these whales move away from Hawaii, what will this industry do?"

Nearly 370,000 people went whale watching during the 1999 season, averaging 3,100 passengers a day, according to the study.

The heart of Hawaii's whale watching belongs to Maui, accounting for two-thirds of the passengers.

"The study quantifies for the first time the economic impact of humpback whales on Hawaii's economy," said Dan Utech, a program analyst with the Environmental Protection Agency, who did the study.

Previous studies lumped whale-watching into the overall tour boat business, but never singled out the money made from viewing whales.

Hawaii's whale-watching industry appears to be smaller than New England's, which experienced a $21 million economic splash from whales off Stellwagen Bank near Massachusetts in 1996, according to the most recent statistics available.

"It's a little surprising Hawaii's market is smaller than New England's, but Boston and Cape Cod are bigger population centers and also attract a lot of tourists," Utech said.

But Hawaii's numbers were higher than expected, Tom said.

The federal government did the study to find out how important the humpback whales are to Hawaii's economy. However, the study induced some anxiety among the state's whale-watching operators, Tom said.

"There was a lot of fear," he said. "People in the industry wondered, 'Is the government going to tax us now?' "

Whale-watching operators may have been concerned about more competitors willing to enter the business once the dollar figures became known, said Naomi McIntosh, the Oahu liaison for the national sanctuary.

Despite any anxiety, about half of the whale-watching operators responded to the study, which was considered a strong response.

Hawaiian Cruises on Oahu attests to the state's whale-watching boom.

The business, which runs the Navatek catamarans, has grown about 10 percent each year since it began in 1990, said president Susan Matsuura.

"It's a win-win situation for the economy and for the whales.

"When people experience them first hand, they think about conservation. Once they see it, they never forget it," Matsuura said.

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