Isles hope for golden
Japanese holiday

More visitors are expected for
the traditional travel week

There was hardly another shopper in sight as Chieko Yamasu browsed souvenir Hawaii coffee mugs yesterday at Waikiki's DFS Galleria.

And that's just fine with Yamasu, a Tokyo resident who got a few days' head start on many Japanese planning to visit Hawaii over the annual Golden Week holiday.

"I came early because I don't like crowds, and I think it will be more crowded soon," she said.

Businesses that depend on tourism hope she's right.

The bulk of Golden Week travelers were expected to begin arriving in the islands yesterday and today, and Hawaii's visitor industry is looking for a big rebound in the traditional Japanese travel season from the SARS-depressed levels seen last year.

"Compared to last year, things look terrifically strong," said David Carey, CEO of the parent company of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts. "We're looking at big double-digit growth."

The Japan travel organizations Jalpak and JTB, which together shepherd roughly half of the Japan visitors to Hawaii, said they both expect to handle twice as many travelers this year compared with Golden Week 2003. But the optimism comes with a caveat.

"Last year was a horrible year," says Ryokichi Tamaki, senior vice president of Jalpak International (Hawaii). "There's no comparison."

Tourism industry officials said expected visitor levels for this year's Golden Week compare much less favorably with previous, non-SARS years, highlighting the challenges the state faces in resuscitating a market that might have been irrevocably changed by 9/11, SARS and increased global competition.

"We're looking good (for Golden Week) compared to last year, but we're flat compared to 2002 and that's pretty disappointing," said Keith Vierra, senior vice president and director of Hawaii operations for Starwood Hotels.

"We thought we'd have more sold-out nights than we actually have."

Jalpak and JTB both expect less business compared with 2002, a year that itself was depressed by the lingering shock of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

That is despite the fact that this year's Golden Week is unusually long. The season, which bunches several national holidays together, is normally a week or less, but this year it stretches roughly from the middle of this week through the end of next week.

A JTB survey showed that the number of Japanese planning overseas travel had doubled compared with Golden Week 2003 but that many will use the longer holiday to visit longer-haul mainland and European destinations instead.

Jalpak's Tamaki says Japanese travelers have "matured." Fed up with the higher hotel rates that often prevail in Hawaii during Golden Week, they were now more willing to try cheaper Asian destinations like China or just stay home.

The market for visitors from the mainland United States seems to have recovered strongly from 9/11, posting a March-record 410,000 westbound visitors last month. But the Japanese segment will take more time to regain its historic highs, if that ever happens, some say.

"I hope that happens, but it will be a long, slow climb," said Sharon Weiner, group vice president with retailer DFS Hawaii.

Carey agreed.

"There was a time when all we had to do was show up, and they would flock here to our superior product. Those days are gone," he said. "We have to try harder now."


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