NAWILIWILI, Kauai >> Cruise ship visits may be the only booming part of Hawaii's tourism industry, so it would seem retailers at the two shopping malls at Nawiliwili Harbor must be dancing in the streets.
Ships bring Kauai
malls mixed business
Retailers say spending by cruise
ship visitors has not been reliable
By Anthony Sommer
Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. The sudden influx of cruise ships has not been a reliable source of customers, retailers say.
"The cruise ships have been a disappointment," said Andy Fraser, owner of Classical Glass, a stained-glass shop at Harbor Mall. Fraser said tourists staying at the neighboring Kauai Marriott Resort and the Banyan Harbor time-share complex are much more dependable customers.
"The guests from the Marriott are much more likely to pull out a credit card and spend some money. People from the ships aren't really helping the local economy," Fraser said.
The retailers agree the biggest problem with the cruise ships is their lack of predictability.
"Two Saturdays ago, when the Norwegian Star came in, we had the best day we've ever had," said Grant Phifer, owner of Coconut Calabash, a gift store at Harbor Mall. "Last Saturday, the Norwegian Star was back and we didn't sell a thing."
Last fall's demise of American Classic Voyage's weeklong Hawaii cruises by the SS Independence and SS Patriot have not been a major blow to harbor area merchants.
Several retailers said the tour prices for the two ships had been deeply discounted, attracting customers who could suddenly afford a Hawaii cruise but had no extra money for shopping.
"Both ships were getting pretty shabby toward the end," said Korine Keeler, manager of the ABC Store at Anchor Plaza, across the street from Harbor Mall.
Statewide, the number of cruise ship passengers is expected to grow to 250,000 this year from 160,000 in 2001 and to 275,000 by 2004, according to the North West CruiseShip Association.
The trade group claims each passenger spends an average of $83 every day they are ashore. But it is often spent on tours rather than trinkets.
The 2,200-passenger Norwegian Star, which made its Hawaii debut last month, now visits Kauai every Saturday. The shopping habits of Norwegian Star passengers have varied wildly in its first few Saturday visits.
"It can be a good day one Saturday, and the next week they have a totally different group of passengers," said Angel Conant, who manages two jewelry stores, Return to Paradise and Octopus Gardens at Anchor Plaza. "A lot depends on how long they're in port."
Few ships stay overnight at Nawiliwili. Most arrive early in the morning. Some leave at dusk, but others depart as early as 2 p.m.
"If there is no time left for shopping after the morning tours, we don't see many passengers," Conant said. "If they have a few hours in the afternoon, they head for the malls."
Most stores carry goods in a wide range of prices, but not even variety helps at times.
"I've had days when I could do $1,200 worth of sales in the five hours a ship is in port, and I've had days when I can't do $20 in five hours," said Mahina Ledward, a clerk in Coconuts Kauai, a clothing store at Anchor Plaza.
One of the ironies she noted is that elderly passengers prefer to shop close to the ship rather than going on lengthy tours with the younger passengers, but they don't like to spend money.
"Sometimes all they want is a small souvenir like a key chain," Ledward said. "But they'll spend all day shopping for it."
Both Nawiliwili malls send shuttle buses to the nearby dock when the ships are in. But so, too, do Wal-Mart and Kmart, which take customers away from the retail shops at the harbor.
Carnival Cruises is by far the most lucrative for the Nawiliwili retailers. Two Carnival ships visited Kauai last year.
"Carnival brings in a lot of people, and they all are shoppers," said ABC Stores' Keeler.
Much depends on whether Kauai is the first stop or the last on a cruise.
"If this is their first stop, we do better. If this is their last stop, they've spent all their money," said Randy Olson, owner of Sole Mates, which sells sandals at Harbor Mall. "They still come and look but they don't buy."