Kaua’i leads state in visitor increase

LIHU’E — On its way to a fourth straight year of greeting over 1 million visitors, Kaua’i led all Hawaiian counties in percentage growth in visitor arrivals for the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

Like the rest of the state, the island appears headed toward one of its best years in history in terms of visitor arrivals.

For the first six months of this year, 540,239 people visited Kaua’i, up 4.8 percent from the first six months of 1999, best among all counties.

In June, according to state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the island welcomed 99,366 people, up 9.5 percent compared to June of last year.

That growth percentage was also the largest among the counties.

The thriving mainland economy is fueling travel, which in turn is powering the economies of the state, island and industry.

But at least one repeat visitor cautions that continued growth in arrival numbers may damage the very thing that attracts people to Kaua’i: The quiet, rural, less-crowded and physically beautiful surroundings.

“It’s sad, in a way,” that the island could be in danger of losing what’s most appealing about it, said Ron Person, 52, chief executive officer of an Internet startup company in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Person and his party arrived yesterday for a nine-day stay, with Kaua’i being the only island his fiancee and daughter will visit while in Hawai’i. He has visited Maui but avoids O’ahu, which he said is too much like Los Angeles.

Person first came to Kaua’i about 10 years ago, and it was a different experience from Maui, he said. The others in his party this time are first-time visitors to Hawai’i and Kaua’i, and yesterday looked forward to exploring the island, including Na Pali Coast.

He said he knows first-hand about how a community can change. He moved to Santa Rosa, in California’s wine country, about 15 years ago, when it was largely an agrarian community. Today, it takes several hours to drive from there to San Francisco because of the urbanization, he said.

Brett Denker, 33, of Orange County, Calif., arrived at Lihu’e Airport yesterday as part of a group of 14, drawn to Kaua’i for its natural beauty and golf.

A self-employed private investigator and a world traveler, he heard about the tropical feel of the island and decided to visit along with his wife, Elizabeth, and sons Bronson and Caden. While many of the others in the party had visited the state before, most were first-time Kaua’i guests, he said.

Visitors who chose Kaua’i as their only place to stay while in Hawai’i made up one-third of all visitors to the island in June, and for the first half of this year, tourism officials reported.

Marketing efforts led by the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau, Mayor Maryanne Kusaka, Kaua’i County’s Office of Economic Development and others have increased awareness about Kaua’i and its outdoor activities, said Gini Kapali, OED director.

The “Kaua’i, Hawai’i’s Island of Discovery” slogan is well-known across the mainland, Kapali said. The potential visitors know about the island’s hiking and other outdoor activities.

“I really think that whole idea of jointly working the markets and the trade shows is one of our successes,” Kapali said of the public-private promotional partnership between the KVB and county.

Still, she admitted surprise about the island’s ability to keep up its arrivals pace, plus the high percentage of independent travelers (80 percent, compared to 20 percent in groups or on tour packages) the island is attracting.

“A lot of people stay in hotels,” and many families are traveling together, she said.

“Our island has kept its balance, and the visitors recognize that. We certainly have a great menu of outdoor activities, and the hotels are doing a lot more cultural events on their properties. That is very attractive, as I understand from all the hotel owners and managers,” she continued.

Even with a revitalized visitor industry on the island, and record arrival numbers, Kapali said marketing efforts need to remain aggressive. The surge in arrivals is expected to continue through next year.

“We always need to show why Kaua’i shines—what is it that we do differently than the other neighbor islands. And I think we’re going to be very successful,” Kapali said.

“I’m delighted, but not surprised,” Kusaka said about the visitor numbers. “It’s no accident. We’ve worked hard to get where we are today,” she said.

“For six years we’ve been spreading the message: on Kaua’i, Aloha lives. Now that we’ve successfully brought them here in record numbers, that message must be validated each and every time we interact with our visitors,” Kusaka added.

But is there a point where the island might attract too many visitors? Traffic is already slowed in a number of areas on the island at various times of the day and week, and Kapali said stores she shops in have been crowded recently with visitors and residents.

“Based on current infrastructure, at some point we’ll reach a peak and have to evaluate whether we want to encourage a lot more visitors, what that (number) would be, and if we have the infrastructure to do it,” said Sue Kanoho, Visitors Bureau executive director.

Her goal for this year is 1.1 million arrivals, a mark she thinks the island will meet. That would be the best since 1991. Targeting specific types of travelers (those seeking activities, golf and romance) in a shift of marketing approach may encourage quality versus quantity of visitors, she added.

News that the domestic visitor arrival numbers are starting to equal out between west and east of the mainland’s Rocky Mountains is good for the island, so that if one area experiences a drop, the other is still strong, Kanoho said.

In recent history, the percentage west-east ratio had been 80-20 or 70-30, she said.

Based on departure surveys taken in the summer and winter of 1999, visitors to the island experience high overall satisfaction with Kaua’i (driven by accommodations and service), its golf and natural surroundings.

Use of the Internet to book travel or gather travel information ballooned to 20 percent of all first-time visitors.

Of the Kaua’i visitors in June, 14,552 came from international locations, showing an increase of 59 percent compared to international arrivals in June of last year.

Visitors from Japan numbered 11,667 in June, a jump of 61.7 percent compared to June of last year.

“I would hope that some of our marketing efforts that we’ve been doing in the Japan market in the last two years are starting to pay off,” said Kanoho.

Length of stay of Japanese visitors was down, however, to 1.62 days.

Statewide, 622,822 people visited in June, up 8.3 percent compared to June of 1999. For the first half of this year, 3.47 million people came to the state, up 5 percent compared to 3.31 million people arriving during the first six months of 1999.

The figures, of course, are good news to state government leaders.

“This is the third consecutive month that visitor arrivals grew by more than 8 percent,” said Dr. Seiji Naya, DBEDT director.

“The resurgent visitor industry is certainly an important part of Hawai’i’s economic revitalization. We have seen increases every month since February, and are headed towards a record year.” Business editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or pcurtis@pulitzer.net


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