While tourism is struggling, Hawaii is emphasizing marketing to steady customers, those on the West Coast and in Japan.

Staying on course

In tough times,
tourism marketers stick
to the tried and true

By Tim Ruel

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of first Koreans in Honolulu. Some 1,600 people are expected to attend an evening Centennial Banquet at Hilton Hawaiian Village, at $125 a plate, with a few hundred visitors coming from South Korea.

Daniel Pyun, president of the 100-member Hawaii Korean Chamber of Commerce, is optimistic that the Centennial events will usher in an era of increased growth in South Korean visitors to Hawaii.

But growth is easy when numbers are small. In 2001, 44,141 Korean visitors came to Hawaii, representing less than 1 percent of the 6.3 million visitors that came to the isles that year, according to state figures. A major roadblock is the lack of a visa waiver program like the one enjoyed by Japanese tourists.

Pyun predicts that Korean visitor counts can return to the levels seen just before the Asian financial crisis of 1997 -- 125,000 Koreans came to Hawaii in 1996. But there's a larger reality when it comes to the state's visitor industry: Hawaii's reliance on U.S. and Japanese visitors is not likely to change for at least a decade.

"China is the only market that I see getting to that level, and that's a decade, if not decades away," said Les Enderton, executive director of the Oahu Visitors Bureau.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and South Korea, show promise for high visitor growth, industry figures said.

But because the Hawaii visitor industry is in recovery mode, the state's tourism marketing officials are aiming the bulk of their resources at Japan and the United States this year. As established sources of tourists, the United States and Japan pose little risk during a time of uncertainty for international travel. It's also important to protect Hawaii's largest source of visitors, North America, said Frank Haas, tourism marketing director for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Even if world events return to relative calm, it will take years to see substantial growth in visitors from other countries, largely because of the slow process of getting more flights, as well as economic factors, tourism leaders said.

In August 2002, Maydene Simmons became vice president of developing international markets at the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Having just started, Simmons learned the bureau was cutting her division's marketing funds by 25 percent to $2.45 million. That cut help to spare Hawaii's bread-and-butter markets, Japan and the United States, but it also dropped the outlook for arrivals from developing markets.

On Friday, a committee of the Hawaii Tourism Authority reduced its goal for growth in arrivals from countries that are outside Japan and North America. The new goal calls for 7 percent growth this year, to 675,103 visitors. The previous goal was 10 percent growth.

Simmons said the budget reduction has prompted her to seek partnerships that can make up for the loss of dollars. She's heading to Australia to organize efforts with tour wholesalers so they can sell trips to Hawaii during times when arrivals would otherwise be low.

"It will make up the cut in actual dollars because the targeted, concerted effort should be part of a larger campaign," Simmons said.

That's not to say she doesn't want the marketing funds restored.

"If we had $10 million or whatever, that would be great," Simmons said.

On the topic of a looming war with Iraq, Simmons said the actual effect on travel to Hawaii may vary by country.

In her previous position, as director of Hawaii travel industry sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii, Simmons was faced with lost flights from Europe after Sept. 11, 2001. "So what do you do there? You don't have the transport available," she said.

"We moved on and we went to look for, 'OK, who's flying?'"

Starwood found that flights in the South Pacific region, particularly from Australia, had resumed quicker than elsewhere, and targeted those markets, Simmons said.

Visitor industry leaders see growth potential in China, a country of 1.3 billion people that has a rising class of entrepreneurs and eager travelers.

Trips to the United States from China jumped 17 percent to 453,000 in 2000 from 387,000 in 1995, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

On a practical level, Simmons sees growth in U.S. companies seeking to set up shop in China, which is leading to more flights between the two countries.

Indeed, getting more flights can be a coup. While visitor destinations such as Hawaii often complain that there aren't enough flights, airlines say there's simply not enough visitors to justify more flights. "It's chicken-and-egg stuff," said Haas, of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Throughout Canada, Oceania, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, flights in 2002 dropped compared to 2001, and by double-digits in some areas.

From January through November, the number of nonstop seats available to Hawaii from Seoul, South Korea, fell by 18.3 percent. From Auckland, New Zealand, the drop was one-third. In Australia, Sydney's seat availability grew slightly, by 1 percent, according to data from the state and the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Flights from developing markets can be built, but it takes years of investment, such as trade shows, Haas said. Once tour wholesalers and hotels start working together, that builds pressure on airlines. "You built it slowly. You do the investment," Haas said.

Top European markets for Hawaii tourism are Germany and the United Kingdom, which is already the largest source of leisure European visitors to the United States, said Simmons, of the Hawaii visitors bureau.

In 2001, 75,721 visitors came to Hawaii from the United Kingdom, and 29,112 came from Germany. As with South Korea, the numbers are small but there is potential for double-digit growth, said Enderton, of the Oahu Visitors Bureau.

The problem is that Hawaii is still seen as being too many thousands of miles away, Simmons said.

The trick is to establish the state as a stopover destination, she said.

The Las Vegas Convention Center gets a lot of business from the United Kingdom, so the Hawaii's visitor bureau could work with the Las Vegas bureau to offer travel packages that could include a stint in the islands, Simmons said. That allows Hawaii to "ride on the tail of their jet stream" and eliminate concerns about long flights, she said.

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