Air arrivals boost Big Island tourism

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Hawaii Island tourism numbers are approaching a record high thanks to an ongoing shift in arrivals from cruise ships to airlines.


Hawaii Island tourism numbers are approaching a record high thanks to an ongoing shift in arrivals from cruise ships to airlines.

Total tourist arrivals to the island peaked in 2007, said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. A total of 1,622,359 visitors came to the Big Island that year. Numbers fell during the recession, but have been on the rise the past few years.

“We’re approaching our all-time high in arrivals,” Birch said.

Between 2011 and 2015, air arrivals increased 12.3 percent.

At the same time, however, arrivals by cruise ship have fallen.

“Going into (2016), we were about 60 percent down from cruise ship arrivals over that peak year,” Birch said.

Statewide, 220,516 cruise ship passengers visited Hawaii in 2016, according to numbers from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The number is a drop of 8.9 percent from 2015, but booking forecasts project a slight rebound in the future.

Minh-Chau Chun, tourism research manager for the HTA, said that preliminary 2017 cruise estimates put numbers at about the same as 2015.

“Some ships are on a rotation basis where they come every two years, and then go away and come back,” she said. “When you see a number that’s down, sometimes it’s due to rotation … it’s a little hard to tell with cruise.”

The drop in passengers also is due in part to the monthlong dry-docking of the 2,250-passenger Pride of America, owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines.

The Pride of America is a domestic-registered ship with a home port in Honolulu.

It is scheduled to make port 52 times in Hilo next year.

A new booking system for cruise ships was put in place by the state Department of Transportation about a year ago, which is expected to increase numbers by making scheduling port arrivals easier.

“Overall, cruise ships have been one of those things that goes in cycles,” Birch said.

“Our island has been able to be resilient and come back in spite of the cruise lines. We become aggressive in marketing the island, and in that, we’ve been able to get the airlines to pick up the difference.”

Most air traffic to the Big Island arrives in Kona.

Birch said 2 1/2 years ago, the airport had 650,000 direct seats.

“We’re now going to hit 900,000,” he said.

A new international route between Kona and Tokyo’s Haneda airport had its inaugural flight Tuesday.

The Tokyo route is one of three new routes added to Kona just this month.

A weekly route to Bellingham, Wash., also began flights, as did a direct flight to Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Dallas-Forth Worth flight will arrive daily during the holidays before stopping in mid-January and restarting for March spring break.

“Airlines … have the ability to really look and pick and choose hot spots,” Birch said. “If their booking periods are over those time periods, they can put airfare in there to be competitive.”

Such is the case with the lone direct mainland route from Hilo. That route is run by United Airlines and goes to Los Angeles. It, too, has seen increases in traffic in the past year.

According to the most recent HTA seat outlook, bookings for December 2016 to February 2017 were up 7.4 percent over the same time period last year.

“United Airlines has been very diligent on their part for adjusting their flights to the demand,” Birch said.

Two years ago, he said, the airline was running just three flights per week.

In the past year, that number increased to five flights per week. This summer, there were seven flights per week.

“Then they kind of gradually decrease toward the end of the year,” Birch said. “They (United) have the flexibility, depending on the demand of the season, to make those changes.”

Birch said he met with his staff after the Tokyo inaugural flight to reflect on the latest route addition.


“We help provide an arrival experience for all these inaugural flights that are coming, and we’re looking at each other going, ‘Man, it’s been a busy couple of years,’” he said.

Email Ivy Ashe at

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