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Hawaii hopes to cash in on Japan's 'Silver Week'


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POSTED: Sunday, September 20, 2009

Japanese tourists have long been golden for Hawaii. The islands now hope to cash in on Japan's so-called “;Silver Week.”;

Hawaii and other vacation destinations are expecting to see a much-needed boost in Japanese travelers thanks to the first-ever Silver Week, a series of national holidays that provide a five-day respite starting this weekend.

It couldn't come at a better time for Hawaii, which has been reeling from a drop-off in the highly coveted visitors because of the stumbling global economy and swine flu fears.

Japan's outbound travel is down nearly double digits this year. The ones who are traveling are spending considerably less, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue for cash-strapped Hawaii.

“;This year is going to be very tough,”; said Takashi Ichikura, executive director of Hawaii Tourism Japan.

According to the latest state figures, Japanese arrivals to the islands have fallen 10.7 percent through July, the largest decline in Hawaii's four top feeder markets, which include the eastern U.S. (10.4), Canada (8.6) and the western U.S. (5.4).

Ichikura said Hawaii is actually faring better with Japanese travelers than most places like North America, Australia, China and Guam.

Japanese are treasured in tourism-dependent Hawaii for their affection of shopping and dining. They also embrace Hawaiian culture, such as hula, and outspend Americans nearly 2-to-1 on a per-person, per-day average.

“;It's not just their spending, but their habits when they are here,”; state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert said. “;They are just voracious experiential travelers.”;

The Hawaii Tourism Authority recently committed $3.4 million to stimulate the Japan market and lure visitors in the short term with a media and marketing blitz.

During the summer, the state sent a delegation to Japan to meet with travel agents. Hawaii also helped coordinate July's Aloha Yokohama festival, which attracted 300,000 people and featured Hawaii-born sumo wrestler Konishiki and musicians.

There was also Hawaiian music playing at Narita International Airport, TV commercials, and images of the islands plastered along train lines during the Japanese royal couple's visit to Hawaii in July.

Ichikura said Hawaii is now working on having a strong presence at travel agencies, where 80 percent of Japanese still go to book package tours.

“;We want to show there's so much to see and experience,”; he said.

The market isn't expected to fully rebound until the world's second-largest economy shows improvement or flu fears subside.

Hawaii is expected to fall short of its original 2009 target of 1.17 million Japanese visitors, which is far less than the 1.5 million that visited in 2005. The projection was made before H1N1 became prevalent.

Another major challenge for Hawaii is fuel surcharges being imposed by struggling airlines, which are cutting flights and staff. Japan Airlines incurred its biggest-ever quarterly net loss of $1 billion in the three months that ended in June. Asia's biggest carrier is restructuring and plans to cut 14 percent of its work force and raise capital.

Hawaii had high hopes after a strong showing in April when Japanese visitors to Hawaii actually rose 8.8 percent to 84,387 because of the annual “;Golden Week,”; when many Japanese vacation.

Then the peak summer travel season arrived, along with fears of swine flu. Japanese arrivals plunged 32.8 percent in June. July fared much better because of heavy discounting and the royal couple, but arrivals were still off 9.2 percent.

“;It takes awhile to get a market motivated again,”; Wienert said. “;It just doesn't happen overnight.”;