Give visitors what they want - bring back 'old Hawaii'


POSTED: Friday, March 06, 2009

“;Hawaii hotel occupancy in '08 fared worse than U.S. average.”;

That is only one of many worrying headlines in the news. With such a gloomy scenario concerning our No. 1 industry, one can only hope that the people responsible for Hawaii's tourism will take immediate and decisive action to correct this negative trend. The livelihoods of many people depend on it. But what can be done?

I can only put forward some thoughts for all to ponder, wacky as they may seem. In a previous columns, I mentioned that there might be a disconnect between the various entities that are, each in its own way, responsible for stimulating tourism and enticing visitors to come to Hawaii. But now there is little or no point in dwelling on past miscalculations and mistakes. The priority must be to find solutions.

It is clear now that the “;high roller”; visitors who were envisaged, and for whom the new Hawaii image was created, are not coming. It seems that what we have to offer is not what they are looking for. At the same time, we turned our back on the typical visitor who was our main source of income for many years. We need to get them back.

Our hotels need to readjust to the traditional tourist by offering rates that are more in line with the spending power of those who choose Hawaii for their vacations. People today are more conversant and informed as to what represents value and if we don't provide it, they will look elsewhere. Would this readjustment be financially painful? It might be, but if corrective actions are not taken, the pain will be far more severe in the future.

The City and County of Honolulu and the state might need to take another look at the “;master plan”; and realize that this expansion and endless construction is turning Hawaii from a tropical paradise to an urban jungle of cement; it is hardly an environment that will entice visitors. A moratorium on granting permits to build huge skyscrapers and massive hotels might be a good start.

Restaurants also need to realize that charging $70 to $80 or more per person for a dinner is more than the majority of Hawaii visitors are willing to spend every evening. The warning sign? The high number of restaurant closures. Forget the nouvelle cuisine and all the pomp associated with it. We are not Cannes, or Saint Tropez or Monte Carlo.

There is an urgent need to address the homeless situation. It is a serious problem that must to be solved for the sake of the homeless themselves and for our tourism industry. It is heartbreaking to see so many people and families camping on the beaches and roaming the streets of Waikiki. But it is also a deterrent for visitors, who are providing much-needed revenue for the state.

A decline in visitors leads to a loss of revenue and therefore a loss of jobs. Loss of jobs could mean an increase in the homeless population. It is a vicious circle that can no longer be ignored. A solution must be found. Burying our heads in the sand could only aggravate the situation and create a bigger problem down the road.

Hawaii also needs the airlines' help. I am not sure how much airlines are willing or able to reduce their fares, but maybe they should consider loosening some of those restrictions that are more of an impediment than an asset. In case something goes wrong and they need to change a departure date, existing rules do not allow any change in itinerary unless one pays considerable additional fees and penalties or, worse, loses the money paid for the fare. We all know the reasoning behind these rules, but for visitors who are coming 3,000 miles or more across the Pacific for a relaxing vacation, having the threat of these restrictions hanging over their heads is anything but relaxing. It is a disincentive to many travelers. It must be considered that most visitors are families, so these penalties could increase considerably the cost of the vacation.

In the Internet era, a change in reservations can be done with a click of a button. Therefore, a change in the departure or return date could be allowed for a reasonable administrative fee. That would be a big help.

There is now a new leader at the Hawaii Tourism Authority. He faces enormous challenges and urgent need for changes. The sudden downturn in the economy caught Hawaii's tourism flat-footed. With no visible alternative strategy in place, a further slide downward seems unavoidable.

During the last few years Hawaii had an unprecedented opportunity to conquer a large share of the visitors market. Hawaii had most of the elements that the average visitor is looking for. With two wars going on and instability around the world, Hawaii was seen by most Americans as “;home”; - safe, with glorious weather, the same language, and where a dollar was still a dollar. It was beautiful, exotic and affordable.

Foreign tourists are much the same as Americans, ultimately looking for the same things, and the “;old”; Hawaii was the perfect place.

So what can be done now? We need to return to catering to our traditional market. Hotels, shops and restaurants need to bite the bullet, recognize that Hawaii is not a place for high rollers and big spenders and realign the price structures to be more in step with today's market realities.

Going back to basics might create a temporary financial loss, but it will be far more achievable and less painful than stubbornly continuing down this high road that leads to nowhere.



Franco Mancassola, a frequent contributor to the Star-Bulletin opinion pages, founded Discovery Air and Debonair Airways. He also was vice president of International Operations for Continental Airlines and World Airways. He lives in Hawaii Kai.