Isle visitor
numbers dip
slightly for 2003

A strong U.S. count makes up
for sagging international markets

While visitor numbers dropped slightly in 2003 as a result of the war with Iraq and SARS, record-breaking domestic travel was strong enough to compensate in part for the dip in Hawaii's international market.

Total arrivals decreased 0.7 percent last year to 6.35 million from 6.39 million arrivals in 2002, according to figures released yesterday by the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. Because travelers took longer trips, total visitor days increased 3 percent to a record 61.9 million, and domestic visitor days rose 6.3 percent to a record 48.7 million. Visitor days represent the total number of visitors multiplied by their average length of stay.

Art A rise in the euro and the threat of SARS led to decreased U.S. interest in international travel destinations. That, coupled with a stronger U.S. economy, helped shift the balance in Hawaii's tourism industry last year, said Paul Brewbaker, chief economist at Bank of Hawaii. Domestic arrivals were up 3.2 percent, while international arrivals fell 9 percent.

Japanese arrivals fell 10.7 percent last year to 1.32 million from 1.48 million, the result of SARS, the war and other factors, but the market rebounded in the second part of the year.

"It was a really remarkable year, but not just because we have milestone numbers," Brewbaker said. "What makes it notable is that it occurred even with SARS and Iraq. We've learned since Sept. 11 that we are resilient. We can take these hits and keep on going."

The measure of how many days all visitors spend in the islands is considered a better indicator of how much tourism contributes to the island economy than visitor arrivals, said Gov. Linda Lingle's tourism liaison, Marsha Wienert.

Hawaii's year-end record-breaking visitor-day numbers show that the tourism market is resilient, which is paramount to the health of the state today and in the future, Wienert said.

"This record-breaking performance from the domestic market continues to be very impressive," Wienert said. "Along with their longer length of stay, the visitors from the U.S. West were clearly the backbone of our industry, and all indicators show that domestic travel will continue this year at record levels."

In addition to being the state's largest market, the U.S. West continued to experience steady growth in visitor arrivals by air, increasing 2.7 percent last December and 2.3 percent for the year. The number of arrivals increased 2.3 percent to 2.54 million from 2.49 million.

However, the tally also shows an upward trend in the number of U.S. East visitor days, which increased 8.5 percent last year from a year earlier. The number of these arrivals increased 3.9 percent to 1.64 million from 1.58 million the previous year.

U.S. East visitors are an attractive market because these travelers tend to stay longer, an average of 12.35 days, and spend more money, an average of $163 per day, than other domestic travelers, said David Carey, president and chief executive officer of Outrigger Enterprises Inc.

"The numbers show that we are adding more bodies that stay longer and spend more, and that's terrific," Carey said, adding that he is buoyed by December's tallies as well as the full-year data.

Looking at December's numbers is one way industry experts begin forecasting the state of the industry in the new year, Carey said.

Domestic visitor days rose 8.8 percent in December compared with the same month in 2002, making it the best December on record. Domestic arrivals rose 7.4 percent in December. International visitor days were down 8 percent, and arrivals dropped 6.8 percent in December.

Carey said the rise in domestic travelers in December, especially from the U.S. East, was promising for the industry and indicates that this market could continue to grow. And while he and other tourism experts were disappointed by a decline in the number of Japanese visitors during December, Carey said some in the hotel industry have attributed the slump to strong mainland bookings blocking out Japanese bookings.

But Outrigger business is an even better indicator for Carey that the market is improving, he said.

"Our forward bookings for the winter are the best they've been in a decade," he said. "And I presume everyone is enjoying the same wealth."

This year, the state forecasts 6.8 million visitors will come to Hawaii -- the most since 2000, when arrivals reached an all-time high of 6.9 million, Wienert said.

It is an ambitious but attainable goal, although the more vulnerable international market could be a swing factor, Brewbaker said.

"I'm forecasting that it will be a record-breaking year in every direction; the patterns that we've seen in place will continue," Brewbaker said. "It's also kind of a slam dunk that the international segment will improve because it is coming back from a deep hole."

Brewbaker expects a 8.7 percent rise in Hawaii's travel market for 2004, with international travel picking up to 14.7 percent and domestic travel rising by 3.7 percent, he said.


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