Imperial visit good for isle tourism


POSTED: Sunday, July 12, 2009

That Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have scheduled their first trip to Hawaii in 15 years during a widespread swine flu outbreak sends a significant signal to their citizens that the islands are safe to visit.

The imperial couple arrives on Tuesday from Canada, with a full schedule of outings on Oahu and the Big Island before departing for Japan on Thursday.

Among the scheduled events are a visit to Kapiolani Park, a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a Waikiki banquet marking the 50th anniversary of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship, and a reception at the Big Island's Parker Ranch.

Since the global outbreak of novel H1N1 virus began in May, many Japanese travelers have avoided Hawaii and the rest of the United States, which has the most swine flu cases of any of the 70 countries where the virus has spread.

Hawaii's count of confirmed or probable cases has risen to 722, spiking 106 cases in a week, and the state is among 10 where the outbreak is classified as widespread, the most serious designation, statistics released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

Tourism officials partly blame the outbreak, and sometimes overblown fears about the risk of getting sick, for weak visitor arrival numbers during Hawaii's peak summer season.

Most infected people here and elsewhere in the United States have recovered without requiring medical treatment. Good hygiene helps deter the flu's spread, and people are urged to stay home from work or school if they feel ill.

But despite such efforts to blunt the impact, the pandemic is expected to continue, and perhaps to intensify, throughout the summer and into the fall and winter, the CDC said.

That makes this week's imperial visit all the more timely and welcome.

That the emperor and empress are set to go out and about, with a busy schedule of appearances, shows they are confident that their health is not at risk even amid the outbreak.

Given how revered and respected they are in their homeland, it's certain that the Hawaii trip will garner widespread media attention in Japan. Potential travelers will get the clear message that it's safe to visit.

Hawaii's government and tourism officials surely are grateful for the show of support.

Obviously, every precaution should be taken to ensure that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are not exposed to the nasty virus that has brought so much sneezing, sniffling, coughing and bad publicity to the islands.