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Officials: Airlines ‘choking’ tourism

Airlines have been paring back on their seats to Hawaii, while ticket prices have been inching up, Hawaii Tourism Authority Vice President for Brand Management David Uchiyama said Friday.

“They increase their prices, basically choking us off,” Uchiyama said during a Hawaii Tourism Authority marketing update at the Waikoloa Marriott. “It’s a downward cycle if we don’t stop it now.”

Compounding the issue, Uchiyama said, is having only one international port, in Honolulu, and the fact that about a dozen international flights land at that airport within about an hour span. Interisland air carriers, responding to the high number of visitors immediately following that influx seeking neighbor island flights, have a small window around midday with lots of seats to other islands.

But if early morning flights land late in Honolulu, it can cause backups for the flights landing just before that peak time to fly interisland, Uchiyama said. And if a visitor’s flight lands late — or they worry they’ll land late and miss their connection — that visitor might end up spending two or three hours at the Honolulu airport before reaching their ultimate destination.

“That can be a turn-off for some visitors,” Uchiyama said. “They don’t want to be stuck at the airport.”

Airlift to Hawaii Island is a key issue for this year, he said before the meeting. For Kona, that means continuing to push for the return of Customs and Border Patrol agents to inspect arriving international flights, while for Hilo, it means pursuing direct flights from the mainland.

“We’ve got a full-court press with our congressional delegation” with regards to seeking federal support for international flights to Kona, Uchiyama said. “We’re inching our way to where we want to be. There’s opportunity.”

This spring, Japan Airlines has several charter flights coming to Kona, Hawaii Tourism Japan’s Eric Takahata said, and officials are trying to arrange more for later this year.

Perennially, people surveyed about trips to Hawaii express concern about the value of a trip here, Uchiyama said, and note the expenses of flying and staying in the state.

“There’s only so much we can do with the experience on the airplane,” Uchiyama said. “There’s only so much we can do with the hotel room.”

What the visitor industry can do, he said, is improve on the experience visitors have once they are on island. To that end, HTA is working to do more to promote cultural events such as Kamehameha Day.

“If we want to increase our prices, this is the experience we can give them,” he said.

Arrivals to the Big Island from China have doubled this year compared to last year, Hawaii Tourism China’s Brenda He said. The numbers may be fairly small — 1,500 from January to early March last year and 3,200 from January until now this year — but they are growing, she said. By comparison, Hawaii Island had about 200,000 Japanese visitors last year, but, he said, it took about 20 years to reach that level.

“It won’t take 20 years to build to 200,000 (from China),” she said.

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