Updated 

Port expects decrease in visitors


East Hawaii’s tourism industry could feel a slight pinch with the Port of Hilo reporting a decrease in the number of visits scheduled by passenger cruise ships in the coming year.

In 2007, East Hawaii welcomed approximately half a million cruise ship passengers, but a year later that total was nearly halved when Norwegian Cruise Lines cut regular visits to Hilo by the ships Pride of Hawaii and Pride of Aloha. Since then, the total number of cruise passengers visiting Hilo has slowly recovered, reaching nearly 285,000 last year, with 129 port calls scheduled by ships.

This year, 113 port calls are scheduled, carrying a maximum possible 239,302 passengers, according to data provided by the state Department of Transportation’s Harbors Division.

“The bookings started off looking good for us in 2014, but as time went on we had some setbacks as far as cancellations and the economic fallback,” said Elton Suganuma, the Port of Hilo’s marine cargo specialist. “If not for those cancellations, we would have been looking really fine for 2014.”

In all, 19 visits by eight different ships were cancelled after bookings were made for calendar year 2014, he said.

“We’ve still got 113 visitations on schedule, which should bring our passengers close to a quarter million,” he added.

Even so, the drop will definitely have an affect on some of the small businesses that rely on Hilo’s cruise industry.

“It will directly affect those who work hand in hand with the visitor industry. People like taxi drivers, shore side security, tour operators. Their lifeblood links them directly into the visitation in our ports. They will be affected tremendously,” he said. “Just these vessels that have withdrawn from the year are going to affect them. If they lose one or two tours, that’s a sizeable whack to your plans and your earnings.”

According to Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, cruise ship passengers make up the largest segment of visitors to East Hawaii.

“For the east side, it’s one of our main things, we get the highest number of arrivals on the visitor side there,” he said.

As of November, cruise ship visitors to the state through 2013 were spending an average of $59.40 per person, he said.

“We’ve seen our activities on the east side of the island have continued to increase with those levels of cruise ships coming in,” he said. “And that includes Volcanoes National Park, which has been at an all-time high. It’s No. 1 in the state again for the most visited attraction, and those cruise ships play a big part in that.”

Birch attributes the dropoff this year to a readjustment after several years of increasing demand, fueled in part by efforts of the visitors bureau to drum up business.

“Any time arrivals go to a high level, there is a bit of a readjustment,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing now. But there may be potential for an increase as we move forward this year.”

Doug Arnott, owner of Arnott’s Lodge &Hiking, whose business relies heavily on the steady stream of tourists brought to Hilo by cruise ships, said Wednesday he wasn’t terribly concerned about what he considers to be a minor drop in visitors. With a little preparation and expenditure of capital, business owners should be able to make their tours more appealing to the cruise passengers making it to East Hawaii.

“We went to mini buses instead of vans. … The typical cruiser, many are bigger, and it’s not as easy to walk for them. They may not be in great shape. With the mini buses, it’s easier to get in and out, and as a result, our ratings will go up with Princess and Norwegian. … If you’re competitive and awake, you can keep your numbers up by being aware of what’s happening in the industry,” he said.

“What really makes us cry is when we have a bad day up on Mauna Kea,” he added. “You have a bad day, and (tourists) blame (the tour operator). Not the weather, or whatever else. Your rating can instantly suffer.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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