By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Tourists are visiting the Big Island in larger numbers and with bigger wallets.
Visitor arrivals are up 8.7 percent to 1,298,871 through November, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The island is just shy of the 1,318,310 visitors it saw last year, making it all but certain that 2012 will be the third straight year of growth following the recession.
“I think it’s going to be a real good year for us,” said George Applegate, Big Island Visitor Bureau executive director.
Tourists are also spending more.
HTA estimates they spent $1.5 billion on the island for the first 11 months, up 17.3 percent from the same time period in 2011.
That’s the most spent since 2007, when tourism contributed $1.6 billion to the island’s economy.
The increased spending has tourism officials feeling optimistic.
“That’s the formula you would like to see,” said David Uchiyama, HTA brand management vice president.
The island also led the state in growth for the second straight month in November, with a 17.5 percent increase that month.
While all signs are looking up, the island will still be a ways under the pre-recession peak of 1,622,359 visitors in 2007.
Uchiyama also noted the island has the lowest occupancy rate in the state at about 63 percent.
“The Big Island in particular is one of the islands we are concerned about with improving occupancy,” he said.
Reestablishing direct flights from Japan to Kona remains a goal, Uchiyama said.
“That is something we think is an opportunity and also has potential within the next couple of years to get reinstated,” he said.
Applegate said that will also be a focus of the visitor bureau as well as returning direct flights from San Francisco to Hilo.
“When there’s demand, they will fly,” he said.
Applegate said the island has also benefited from new marketing strategies that better highlights its diversity, while getting away from the nickname, the “Big Island.”
He said most people on the mainland mistakenly think of Oahu when they hear it.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.