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Biden remark another blow to ailing isle visitor industry


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POSTED: Friday, May 01, 2009

Just when Hawaii tourism officials are seeing a possible silver lining from swine flu fears sweeping the globe, an offhand remark by Vice President Joe Biden threatens more dark clouds for the state's No. 1 industry.

During an interview with NBC's "Today" show, Biden warned against commercial air travel during the flu outbreak.

"I would tell members of my family, and I have — I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said. "It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft."

The Obama administration quickly backtracked on the comment, saying that travelers who are not sick are safe to travel.

However, damage may have already been done, said Jack Richards, president and chief executive of Pleasant Holidays LLC, Hawaii's largest wholesaler.

"[Hawaii] is definitely going to lose business as a result of that interview," Richards said. "That statement and that suggestion was not good for Hawaii — or for any other destination dependent on air travel."

Worse yet, it came from up high, Richards said.

"You aren't talking about some comment from a travel agent," he said. "When a statement comes from the vice president of the U.S., I think it has an impact."

This is not the first time Hawaii tourism has been stung from words from the Obama administration.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama and other high-level politicians advised companies, especially those receiving taxpayer bailouts, not to travel to exotic locales.

Hawaii saw immediate cancellations from business groups.

"It's been a rough few months for travel, and Hawaii is certainly feeling that more than most," said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the U.S. Travel Association.

Following the administration's business-travel comments, Richards said he saw Pro Bowl-related travel to Hawaii fall.

However, he said, prior to Biden's comments, travel fears were working in Hawaii's favor.

Travel executives have been reporting that in the days since the world first heard about the potential pandemic last week, some mainland travelers had canceled Mexico vacation plans and instead chosen to come to Hawaii.

"You've got the lion's share of re-bookings," Richards said, adding that in the last few days Hawaii had picked up 50 percent of the trip cancellations from Mexico.

Hawaii's branded hotels such as Hilton and Marriott are receiving inquiries for group re-bookings, said David Uchiyama, vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau was barraged yesterday with calls," Uchiyama said. "People recognize that we have exceptional values, and most of the business is being redirected to Hawaii."

It's too early to gauge the impact of Biden's remarks, but Uchiyama said he hopes travelers will notice Hawaii's safety efforts and apply common sense.

In the current climate, any advantage could turn quickly, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president of operations for Hawaii and French Polynesia for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "We don't want to celebrate someone else's misfortune. It's a bachi thing," Vieira said.