Friday | December 15, 2017
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Hawaii, Japan talk tourism at summit

KOHALA COAST — When Hawaii elaborates on its economy, tourism talk is never far behind.

That paradigm prevailed this week at the first ever Japan-Hawaii Economic Summit — a three-day conference at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows attended by government officials, business leaders and academics from the state and abroad.

“This conference is really about strengthening the business-to-business relationships, government-to-government relationships, and finally the personal relationships that really provide the foundation,” Gov. David Ige said. “The relationship between Japan and Hawaii, it’s more than business, it’s more than friendship. It’s about family. Many of us trace our roots to Japan.”

Tourism is the state’s most significant economic engine, generating nearly $16 billion in revenue last year alone. No country is as vital to Hawaii’s top industry as Japan, which accounted for 1.5 million of the state’s nearly 9 million visitors in 2016 — more than triple the rate of any other international market.

President and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority George Szigeti said those numbers have continued to rise, as visitors from Japan increased by 7 percent in the first quarter of 2017 while their spending was up 19 percent during the same span.

“Japan has such a significant cultural partnership with Hawaii, you just can’t define it,” Szigeti said. “It’s amazing how they embrace Hawaii. They respect it.”

The trend is expected to continue with the recent opening of the federal inspection station at Kona International Airport, which allowed for direct international flights into the Big Island from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for the first time since 2010.

“I spoke with many airlines and travel firms that said we could see as much of a 20 percent increase in visitors from Japan to Hawaii if we had direct flights to neighbor islands,” Ige said. “I’m convinced there will be more flights coming into Kona as Honolulu International Airport is virtually at capacity.”

The inspection station in Kona could open up the possibility of flights from China, the Philippines and South Korea in the future, but experts said during the summit Hawaii must remain on the cutting edge of tourism marketing to keep flights full.

The nature of tourism is changing, and how to reach the emerging segments of tourists in Japan and elsewhere was a hot topic Wednesday afternoon during a panel entitled “Tourism 2.0.”

The governor and the panel, on which Szigeti was featured, agreed presenting an authentic Hawaii to millennials not only in Japan but across the globe via emerging digital markets will be a driving factor for the state’s tourism industry.

“The visitor of the future, the millennial, they want the authentic experience,” said Szigeti, adding for the first time this year the often maligned generation represents a larger portion of the population than baby boomers. “They want to see what locals do, eat what locals eat, shop where locals shop, hike where locals hike. They don’t want to go to the pool and have a mai tai and sit all day.”

Part of HTA’s strategy to reach millennials is by segmenting the industry into categories like culinary tourism or sports tourism, highlighting uniquely Hawaiian experiences and marketing them directly to consumers who seek them out.

“I went fishing with Sam Choy and Alan Wong maybe six or seven years ago in the most desolate part of Alaska,” Szigeti said. “Within 20 minutes, I’m hearing someone on the phone saying, ‘Honey, you won’t believe who’s here in Alaska! It’s Sam Choy!’ Within 20 minutes, they knew who these guys were.”

Part of playing up Hawaii’s authentic flavors is by supplementing them with more activity. The state’s Food and Wine Festival, for instance, has expanded from a one-day event on Oahu to a two-week extravaganza across every county.

It’s also about creating activities to draw tourists in different ways. That notion was most recently highlighted by the Honolulu Biennial, a nonprofit visual arts festival with a Pacific theme that debuted on Oahu in 2017.

“The tourism industry is really embracing change,” said Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, director and co-founder of the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, which received a grant from the HTA to stage its first event. “I don’t believe contemporary art tourists have been actively courted before, and HTA believes (endeavors like this) are worth supporting.”

Ellaheh Hughes’ foray into cultural tourism has to date drawn 91,000 visitors to the foundation’s nine exhibition sites.

But even more than creating unique experiences, keeping Hawaii’s tourism industry relevant is about concentrated messaging.

Ige mentioned that for the first time, social media platforms represent a larger portion of advertising dollars than those spent on traditional television and print media.

“We have a lot more information than we had about our market, and we can segment that information into smaller groups using digital and social media,” Ige said.

In an effort to adapt to dominant trends, HTA introduced virtual reality to its website last year while also equipping the state’s global contractors with the technology.

People can experience the feeling of parasailing onto Hawaii Island and landing in a lava field without ever vacating their computer screens — the ultimate goal, of course, being to prompt their interest in the real experience by enticing them with the digital version.

HTA also released its GoHawaii app a few months ago, which provides travelers with safety messages and showcases experiences unique to each island.

“We’ve got to make sure to stay relevant from a technology standpoint,” Szigeti said. “Visitors get here now and they’re going right to their smartphone when they get off the plane.”


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