Hiroko and Takahashi Kazutaka from Yokohama, Japan, shop at the Compleat Kitchen at Ala Moana Center. Japanese tourists are now looking for high quality local gourmet items as opposed to past years when they paid high prices for lower quality items.

Who are you?

The new Japanese tourist may be
spending less and shopping smarter,
but they are still an economic boon

In the late 1990s, when the Japanese tourism boom to Hawaii was taking off, the state's largest industry went to great lengths to cater to these nouveau rich of Asia.

Then, the bubble burst.

Japanese visitor arrivals to Hawaii, which peaked at 2.2 million in 1997, fell to 1.3 million last year in response to a weakened Japanese economy and geopolitical troubles. And, Hawaii saw a new, more-discriminating, value-oriented breed of Japanese visitors coming to the state.

"When the bubble burst, they went through a trying time. Now, the Japanese are like any other tourists, and they are much more conscious of price and quality, said Gilbert Kimura, spokesman for Japan Airlines, which celebrates its 50th anniversary tomorrow. "Japanese tourists used to spend four times more than other visitors, now it's more like double."

Not only do Japanese tourists have more sophisticated desires as a result of the extensive travel and Internet material at their fingertips, but they look different, too. The visibility of office ladies in their designer fashions and Japanese business men in suits has been diluted by an ever-growing segment of silver-haired baby boomers, honeymooners and multigenerational family groups on holiday, said Kiyoko Tanji, general manager of the state's Hawaii Tourism Japan, which launched its Dentsu marketing campaign Jan. 22.

Junko Kudon and her mother, Kazuko Kudon, look over items at the Complete Kitchen at Ala Moana Center. Multigenerational family groups are among the new trends in Japanese tourism.

The shift in demographics and desires has changed the way Hawaii tourism experts must market the destination and how businesses, ranging from hotels to tour operators, attraction managers and retailers, advertise their products, said Marsha Wienert, state tourism liaison.

"It's interesting to me the number of Japanese tourists that I see shopping in Ross," Wienert said. "Many of them are repeat visitors and they really want to venture outside of the more traditional shopping venues in search of the more real Hawaii experience. They are also a more sophisticated traveler than in the past. They research destinations like you wouldn't believe."

At one time, those in retail and hospitality counted on well-heeled Japanese tourists visiting Waikiki and nearby retail districts like Ala Moana to grab up luxury rooms, food and souvenirs. Hotels put Japanese-speaking staff in the lobby, slippers in the rooms and complementary green tea on the dressing tables. Around the streets of Waikiki, Japanese restaurants were built and shops and stores put up Japanese-language signs. Lots of money was spent to satisfy the needs of this high-spending tourist who preferred boutique and couture to bargains and favored $60 steak and lobster dinner over fast food, Kimura said.

While those posh tourists are still coming to Hawaii, it's about 75 percent more common now to see visitors who are looking for value when planning their trips, said Tadashi Goto, who has conducted more than 600 random interviews of Japanese tourists for PacRim Marketing Group Inc. during the past 18 months. The company started collecting data from Japanese visitors after Hawaii's economy weakened post-Sept. 11, said Dave Erdman, president and chief executive of PacRim.

"We wanted to find out who was coming, and why, and what they were doing while they were here; so that we could better target our messages," Erdman said.

The fact that Hawaii truly is a land where East meets West is becoming clearer to those in the tourist industry as more Japanese visitors are adopting the habits of their western counterparts, he said.

"Japanese visitors are starting to enjoy a more 'American style vacation' experience," Goto said, adding that visitors, regardless of their socio-economic class, want more value and are less likely to want to participate in a heavily scheduled group vacation experience.

Today's Japanese tourists are much more likely to book travel on their own, to drive rental cars and to visit destinations like the North Shore, Pearlridge and Kailua than their counterparts. The office lady market, comprised of young single professionals with plenty of disposable income, is more likely to book value hotels and save their splurges for a spa experience, said Ryokichi Tamaki, vice president of JALPAC International Hawaii.

Increasingly this market is being overshadowed for retailers, said Sharon Weiner, DFS Hawaii group vice president.

"Office ladies, historically for retail in general, are the most yen-productive segment of the Japanese population, but we are seeing a whole new segment of multigenerational travelers and there is wealth in the grandma and grandpa generation," Weiner said. "There has also been a dramatic increase in the wedding market and these visitors tend to be a large-spending segment."

The changing visitor market has prompted many retailers to improve their quality and services, said Kathy Reuters, marketing director for the Compleat Kitchen at Ala Moana Center, which just celebrated its 28th year.

"Once the retailers were spoiled with visitors coming and buying up anything they saw," Reuters said. "The Japanese visitor is much more discerning now. This visitor is looking for new value and quality and wants items that are unique to Hawaii."

Providing a unique visitor experience is also the philosophy behind the state's Hawaii Tourism Japan campaign, which kicked off this month in Tokyo. The campaign, "Six islands, six surprises," features spokesman Jake Shimabukuro and consists of four images depicting the state's blue skies, red earth, green jungles and black lava.

A Web site,, was posted Jan. 22 and a picture and information gallery opened in the heavily trafficked Shidome neighborhood in Tokyo, Tanji said.

On Jan. 26, campaign posters decked the walls of subway stations and travel agencies. A newspaper ad was scheduled for yesterday in Yomiuri Newspaper, a morning newspaper with 10 million circulation. A magazine campaign designed to reach more than 2 million readers will begin in February and a TV commercial is planned for May or June, Tanji said.

Why so much effort to rejuvenate a declining market? Because while the Japanese tourist market may have changed, it's appeal has not. If the Dentsu campaign is successful and entices Japanese tourists to come back to Hawaii, or to stay in the state a little longer, Hawaii's tourist industry would net a hefty boost, Tamaki said.

Even though Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom generate more visitors to the United States than Japan, Japanese tourists still contribute the most to the U.S. tourism industry in terms of spending, said Ron Erdman, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Tourism and Travel Industries.

Hawaii is still the most preferred foreign destination for Japanese tourists, followed by Guam and California, Erdman said.

Last year, 2.8 million Japanese tourists visited the United States between January and November and nearly half of them visited Hawaii. Arrivals from Japan accounted for 71.7 percent of all international visitors coming to Hawaii and at 1.3 million represented 20.9 percent of the state's total visitor market.

And while the overall number of Japanese visitors to Hawaii fell by 10.7 percent for the year, their per person per day expenditures rose 2.2 percent to $240.50 per day, Wienert said.


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