Sunday, May 2, 2004

Japanese tourists sat on the Waikiki Trolley as they traveled down Kalakaua Avenue on Friday. Japanese tourist numbers are steadily on the rise since fears of terrorism and SARS have abated. A report by the Japan Association of Travel Agents says Japanese travel retail outlets are projecting an improvement in outbound travel to Hawaii in the second quarter of this year.

Japanese tourist
numbers increasing

A recovering economy in Japan
and fewer fears of terrorism
are cited for the rise

Matsuko Matsuzaki says the threat of terrorism and SARS made her only a little bit worried about traveling to Hawaii. A frequent visitor in the past, she was eager to return to the islands.

"With airport security more strict, I feel safer," the Osaka secretary said last week as she strolled down Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. "I love Hawaii and enjoy the Hawaiian culture."

Matsuzaki is among the Japanese travelers helping to boost the visitor numbers from Japan to Hawaii after six straight years of decline. Thousands are coming to Hawaii this week during Japan's annual Golden Week holidays.

The number of Japanese visitors to Hawaii peaked at 2.2 million in 1997, but has declined every year since then to 1.3 million last year, according to statistics from the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

The numbers dropped as Japan's "bubble" economy collapsed in the 1990s. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And then, just as the numbers were starting to go up again, the SARS scare in Asia and the start of the war in Iraq last year kept the Japanese at home, or at least away from the United States.

After slight gains in January and February of this year, March showed an 11.2 percent increase in visitors from Japan over March 2003.

The tally for April, as of Thursday, showed daily gains -- except for four days -- over the April 2003 figures, with the number of arrivals Thursday 218 percent higher than the year before.

"The economy in Japan is improving, SARS has been controlled, fears of terrorism have subsided and people are traveling again," said Gilbert Kimura, Hawaii regional manager for Japan Air Lines, which has seven daily flights between Honolulu and Japan. "It's a good atmosphere."

A report by the Japan Association of Travel Agents says Japanese travel retail outlets are projecting an improvement in outbound travel to Hawaii in the second quarter of this year.

American Airlines said last week it's seeking permission to begin nonstop service between Honolulu and Tokyo -- a move seen in Hawaii as an expression of confidence in the rebounding Japanese visitor market.

While Hawaii is seeing a Golden Week spike in numbers, Marsha Wienert, the state tourism liaison, said more Japanese companies are also allowing their employees to take vacation time when they want.

"This is good for us because we won't have the peaks and valleys," she said.

Some Hawaii businesses that rely on Japanese tourist dollars are still waiting for things to improve.

"The number of Golden Week visitors is up substantially from last year, but not as high as before 9/11," said Sharon Weiner, group vice president of DFS Hawaii, which operates the Galleria, a Waikiki shopping mall that includes a duty-free shop, as well as the duty-free shops at the state's airports.

The Galleria stores may see a jump in sales later next week toward the end of their holiday period, Weiner said.

Art Watanabe, a manager at the La La Hula clothing store in Waikiki, also said he expects to see a spike in sales later this week.

"They (Japanese visitors) want to have fun first and then shop," he said.

Yasuyo Marabellas of First Adventure Tours, which arranges island tours for Japanese visitors, said she hasn't seen much of an increase in business in the past month, despite the state's higher arrival figures. "Hopefully, we will see an increase in the summer," she said.

Some industry officials caution against making too much of the recent year-over-year increases, noting that last year was a particularly bad year because of SARS and the war.

Kimura said he expects the Japanese visitor numbers of get back to the 2002 pre-SARS levels, and eventually to the pre-9/11 levels if there are no major terrorist acts.

The sense of Hawaii being a safe place appeals particularly to the older generation of Japanese, Kimura said.

But it appeals to younger travelers, too.

"I feel safer here than other places, like Europe," said Yoshiko Odagawa of Tokyo, visiting Waikiki with her sister, Akiko, of Yokohama, who agreed. "I like it here," Akiko said. "I have no fear."

Although Wienert expects this to be a good year for Japanese tourism, she said she doesn't want to look beyond 2004 yet. "There are so many factors that can affect it," she said.

One factor could be a requirement that foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed before entering the United States, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently extended to Japan, along with other U.S. allies such as Britain and Australia, effective Sept. 30.

Currently, citizens of these countries are allowed to travel within the United States without visas for up to 90 days.

The state has a lot of concerns, Wienert said.

The U.S. Customs area at Honolulu International Airport is not large enough to handle additional processing of a large number of visitors in a timely manner, she said. And Customs needs more personnel, she said.

Having people waiting in line for up to four hours or more is "not the type of aloha we want to extend to visitors coming into our state," Wienert said.

The state is supporting U.S. ports of entry on the mainland in asking the Bush administration to extend the Sept. 30 deadline. But, in the meantime, the state is working to improve the airport infrastructure, she said.

Wienert said she is even more concerned about a mandate that departing foreign passengers be fingerprinted and photographed, even though there is no deadline for that requirement.

"There has to be a balance between the security requirements and our ability to keep our economy going," she said.

The fingerprinting requirement definitely will have an effect on tourism from Japan, Kimura said.

"Hawaii is popular with Japanese travelers because of the visa waiver," he said. "Coming to Hawaii is almost like traveling domestically. This could become too bothersome for some people and they may go somewhere else."


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