Big Island tourism data mixed

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The number of visitors arriving by airline on Hawaii Island rose by 3.8 percent in 2015, according to preliminary data released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

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The number of visitors arriving by airline on Hawaii Island rose by 3.8 percent in 2015, according to preliminary data released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Meanwhile, cruise ship tourism foundered slightly, dropping 0.2 percent, with 225,707 visitors arriving on the Big Island by ship in 2015.

The Big Island welcomed 1,503,547 air travel visitors last year, compared to 1,449,070 in 2014. Since 2011, the number of tourists arriving via air has climbed 12.3 percent.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, said the numbers were encouraging, with airlines having increased over the last several years the number of seats available to Hawaii.

“It’s nice to have the inventory available,” he said. “It looks promising for the upcoming year, especially in the U.S. West and U.S. East markets.”

Domestic visitors made up 76 percent of the air travel visitors arriving on the island last year, with 994,337 arriving in Kona and 386,388 arriving in Hilo. Visitors to Hawaii Island from the western states grew by 8.8 percent, while visitors from the eastern states grew by 1.1 percent.

The lion’s share of total air travel visitors to the Big Island, at just under 1.28 million, arrived at the Kona International Airport, while just shy of 549,000 flew into Hilo International Airport, according to the HTA report.

Of the 1.5 million visitors to Hawaii Island, more than 723,414 made it their only stop in the state, an increase of 8.2 percent from the previous year.

Interestingly, the number of Japanese air travel visitors, who represent the largest and therefore most important international market for Hawaii, took a large dip, dropping 17 percent from 170,482 in 2014 to 141,846 last year.

The Hilo side of the island saw the biggest impact, with a 29 percent drop in Japanese air visitors, falling from 65,856 in 2014 to 46,902 last year. The Kona side changed less dramatically but still represented a significant hit, losing 11 percent of its Japanese air travelers, going from 120,383 in 2014 to 106,909 in 2015.

Birch explained it was part of a trend on which his office has been keeping a watchful eye.

“We’ve seen this trend over the last couple years where Japanese traveler packages have been reduced in availability to the Neighbor Islands. It’s something we’re working on,” he said.

Numbers weren’t readily available for Chinese visitors to the Big Island, but statewide the market grew by 12.4 percent.

However, Birch said that current financial instabilities in China could put a damper on predictions of an ongoing boom in visitors from that nation. While Chinese tourism to Hawaii represents a very small portion of the total, it had been positioned for exponential growth over the next few years.

“We saw something like a 60 percent increase last year,” he said. “We’ve seen really big increases in the China market, year over year, and predictions were for that to amplify itself in the coming years. But because of market instability, we’re expecting to see stabilization of that.”

He added that his office will work to find ways to increase access to Kona for Asian markets.

“We’re really going to be focusing on having direct international access to Kona. It’s going to be key to turning around China, Japan and the Korea markets,” Birch said.

In addition to more visitors as a whole visiting Hawaii Island, they also increased their spending habits by almost 1 percent, totaling $1.9 billion in 2015.

Statewide, visitor arrivals grew by 4.1 percent compared to 2014, totaling 8.65 million, according to the HTA’s data.

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Tourism as a whole in Hawaii set a new record for the fourth straight year, producing a record total of $15.2 billion in visitor expenditures, an increase of 2.3 percent over 2014.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaii tribune-herald.com.

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