Threat of Iraq war is impacting Kaua’i’s visitor arrivals

Visitor industry leaders concerned

Just talk of war has been enough to have a negative impact on visitor arrivals, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau.

“We’ve already shifted one program for right now because we’ve already felt a little bit of softening, and we think that that’s a result of discussion of war,” said Kanoho.

The immediate response has been to initiate an e-mail campaign targeting folks who have asked for Kaua’i vacation information.

“Some companies have registered a concern that even the talk of war is enough to start to affect the numbers. So, in many respects, just talking about it for a few more months can start to impact numbers of people either postponing, or holding, or waiting, so that is a concern for us as well,” she said.

“We don’t have to wait for the actual first shot to be fired to respond. Some of us need to start watching and keeping a close eye on the numbers, because just the discussion of it, and the fear of people,” the waiting and not knowing what will happen as the sabre-rattling continues, can be enough to make people delay or otherwise change vacation plans, she said.

On the other hand, people may choose Kaua’i or Hawai’i over other exotic destinations if those other exotic destinations become near a war zone, she said.

“I just think we need to be extremely careful of how we position ourselves as (a) quote unquote, ‘safe destination,'” she said.

The Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau and Hawai’i Tourism Authority have war contingency plans in place, and representatives have asked the various island visitor-bureau chapters to look at their budgets to see where money could be taken in the event war breaks out and a special advertising campaign is needed to let people know Hawai’i is still welcoming visitors, she noted.

The agencies have also requested $8 million from the state Legislature for emergency marketing efforts in the event of war, she said.

One complication is the very short booking time for many Hawai’i visitors, she continued. That makes it more difficult to gauge impacts of world events on visitors’ decisions whether or not to travel to Hawai’i, she added.

“The biggest question for all of us is, ‘What kind of war are we talking about?’ What kind of war we’re talking about will determine what kind of implementation plan you’re going to use,” she said.

War with Iraq, terrorism in the United States, or a combination of those, all evoke different marketing responses, she added.

“It’s very difficult right now to say what we would do, when we would do it and for how long we would do it until we know what it is exactly we’re dealing with. That’s the hardest part of this right now,” said Kanoho.

The island’s visitor industry, which stands to take the hardest hit of any one economic sector should war break out, has already begun proactive promotion of Kaua’i, said one hotel manager.

“Everybody’s ready,” said Jerry Gibson, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Kaua’i Resort & Spa in Po’ipu.

He just returned from visits with wholesalers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, N.M., where one of his “war plans” was “to go and make sure that the pipe is being fed to Kaua’i. With the new air schedules coming on and the ones that are existing, I think we’ll have the best shot at it that we can,” said Gibson.

How international events play out will determine reactive measures, he said, agreeing with Kanoho.

“I think everybody is prepared,” said Gibson. “Many of us have been here through the Gulf War, and many have been here after 9-11, and other challenging times, and when you have the worst times, the most positive thing you can do is work on the sales effort,” he said.

“So everybody becomes a salesperson. We’ll be calling our clients, whether they be group or FIT (free and independent travelers), and if they are not comfortable coming to the island (during war), we’re going to try to keep them in the system by moving them to other dates,” he continued.

“We’ll give them incentives to come and stay for another time, so that we don’t lose the asset altogether,” said Gibson, who is also president of the board of directors of the Po’ipu Beach Resort Association.

“That would be our basic plan. We’re going to try to encourage them to come to the islands, because it’s a wonderful, safe place, or move them to a different time in the calendar year,” he said.

Margy Parker, PBRA executive director, said the association has no specific plans in case of war, but the possibility of war will be a topic of discussion at the PBRA board meeting next week.

“I imagine, when war occurs, we will intensify (marketing) efforts specifically on the West Coast,” bolstered by information from California-based travel writers who think Hawai’i will do well because domestic travel should continue even if there is a war, Parker said.

Wednesday’s issue of USA Today had a full-page advertisement from United Airlines announcing low fares on nonstop flights from the West Coast to Lihu’e, the Big Island and Maui, she said.

“Clearly, United is already pushing Hawai’i,” with the major provider of seats between the West Coast and Hawai’i also scheduled to launch a second daily nonstop flight between Lihu’e and San Francisco on a six-week trial basis starting next Saturday, March 1, Parker commented.

On the North Shore and the Eastside, the major timeshare operator says she may shore up on needed repairs if people decide not to travel to Kaua’i while war rages.

But she doesn’t think that is likely.

Lynn McCrory, president of Pahio Resorts, Inc., which owns or manages timeshare units at Princeville and Hanama’ulu, said her owners have indicated they plan to come to Kaua’i even if there’s a war.

That would be history repeating itself, as her occupancy rate dropped to around 75 percent the week after Sept. 11, 2001, and then bounced right back to the mid-eighties, then back to the standard high nineties, she said.

Hence, even if war comes, Pahio plans no cuts to its 300-person workforce, McCrory said. “None of my staff have been laid off at all, and none will be.”

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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