Sunday, December 23, 2001

The beach at Waikiki was crowded with tourists yesterday, in contrast to the decline in visitors after Sept. 11. Holiday flights to Hawaii have been booked solid, but retailers wonder if the spike will bring a spending boom.

Isle tourists return,
but sales don’t

Retailers fail to benefit from an
increase in mainland arrivals

By Treena Shapiro

Busy beaches, empty stores.

On the beach side of Kalakaua Avenue, the drop in tourism after Sept. 11 is barely evident. The sand is covered by blankets, towels and beach chairs. Many surfers hold their boards over their heads to avoid hitting scattered groups of visitors standing in the middle of the sidewalk as they study guide books.

Tourists in Waikiki say empty seats are hard to find coming to Hawaii from the mainland for the holidays.

"They were pretty full all the way," said Nick Hancock, of Myrtle Beach, S.C. His wife, Cindy, said flights to Hawaii were booked between Dec. 19 and 26. She and her husband played it safe by flying into Maui on Dec. 15.

Even so, they were hard-pressed to find a flight to the Big Island from Oahu today, and were saved when Hawaiian Airlines added a special flight. "But there's not a rental car to be found on the Big Island."

"There was a big change after Sept. 11, but slowly people start coming back," said beach boy Michael Corpuz.

Mai Kazuyama, left, and Mika Ikeda, both of Japan, enjoyed the surf yesterday at Waikiki.

Now things are picking up, Corpuz said. "It keeps me busy," he said. "It keeps me alive."

Across the street, however, many retailers have yet to see any marked improvement in business. Tourists are more likely to be carrying bags full of fast food and drinks than clothing and souvenirs, leaving many business owners and shop clerks glum and idle as their shops and restaurants are passed by.

Preliminary numbers through Thursday show mainland arrivals are beginning to pick up, especially on the neighbor islands. However Japanese visitors still aren't traveling like they used to. The state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism says international arrivals are off 25 percent from last year.

No one seems to be in the market for the brightly colored leather handbags Yoshiko Takaji sells at Italia Milano. "Before (Sept. 11), every day a sale," she said.

Since then, however, her sales have dropped by 75 percent, which she attributes to a lack of Japanese tourists.

Takaji had been hoping that business would pick up during the Christmas season, but she said "Christmas now (in) two more days," she said. "Now no more chance."

"Maybe next spring (there will be) a lot of tourists," she said. "I hope."

Town and Country Hawaii had several customers yesterday morning, and manager Don Hulen said sales had picked up for the holidays, with more mainland tourists coming in than last year. "We've seen an increase in spending," he said. "People are more generous this time of year."

One positive trend he has noticed is that "local folks are coming in to Waikiki to buy Christmas presents, which is great," Hulen said.

But a return of Japanese tourists would help business, too, he said, noting that the surf shop is fairly dependent on their business. "We anxiously await their return in numbers they previously came in," he said.

Aside from four or five days around the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 9, many retailers say business has been consistently slow.

A man who owns a kiosk selling gold-by-the-inch and souvenirs scoffed at the suggestion that business might have improved this month. "No business, no customers," he said, as he used pliers to tighten the clasp on a beaded necklace.

He said his sales are down 50 percent. "It's really bad. People no spend money."

"I think everybody's afraid to fly," he said. "Tickets really low price, still no customers."

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