Baptiste: Japan tourism leaders see visitor rebound soon

LIHU’E – Leaders of Japan’s travel industry told Kaua’i Mayor Bryan J. Baptiste that numbers of Japanese visitors to Hawai’i should return to pre-Sept. 11, 2001 levels by this September, or sooner.

“They gave us some positive reinforcement that Hawai’i is still the number-one destination for Japanese travelers,” said Baptiste, briefing the media yesterday about his first trip to Japan as mayor.

Still, a bit of a mood shift will be necessary before Japanese travelers, who still consider Hawai’i the “ichiban,” or number-one vacation destination, can be assured that it’s safe and OK to travel to Hawai’i, he said.

“Getting them back into the traveling mood” was one of the purposes of Baptiste’s trip to Japan, after he pledged during last year’s mayor’s race not to travel much on visitor-promotional trips if elected.

“It’s incumbent on me to represent Kaua’i” as part of the official delegation led by Gov. Linda Lingle, he said.

It was also important for government leaders to go to Japan to show, “We’re still willing to fight for their business,” Baptiste said.

And many of the Japanese tourism, business and government officials made it a point to tell Baptiste they were happy to see him and not a subordinate.

Among the four county’s mayors, only Alan Arakawa of Maui and Baptiste joined Lingle in Japan. Honolulu and Hawai’i counties sent those second in command.

“Now, it’s a matter of getting confidence back in the mind of Japanese visitors, that it’s safe and OK to travel,” and travel to Hawai’i and Kaua’i, Baptiste continued.

Where Japanese travelers are concerned, both the social and economic states of the places they plan to travel to are important considerations, he said.

And while external forces such as the continued sluggish Japan economy continue to put a damper on Japanese travel to Hawai’i, there are some things Kaua’i and state leaders need to do now to make sure the island is ready to accept additional Japanese tourists when they are ready to travel again, he noted.

“We’re not without challenges. There needs to be infrastructure improvements,” as well as more interpreter services, he said.

“We have to get our tourism spots up to snuff,” because it makes no sense to bring lots of people to the island if they won’t have positive experiences and become repeat visitors, he added.

Availability of flights to the Neighbor Islands from Honolulu emerged as an issue, he said. Where Japanese visitors used to fly into O’ahu, then decide on a Neighbor Island and book airline seats, that can’t happen in today’s environment with fewer daily interisland flights.

Kaua’i greeted just over 3,000 visitors from Japan in May this year, off 50 percent from over 6,000 who came in May of last year. The island used to enjoy a mix that included 15 percent visitors from Japan, but that percentage has shrunk to 7 percent to 10 percent, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau.

She also made the Japan trip, along with Annette Baptiste, the mayor’s wife. It was the mayor’s second trip to Japan, and his wife’s first.

While he invited all of the airline, industry and government executives he spoke with to visit him on Kaua’i, he was surprised to learn that many of those leaders have not been to this island for 10 to 15 years, he said.

Kaua’i government and industry officials are aiming squarely at “mature” Japanese travelers, those ages 65 and above with lots of disposable income, as well as continuing to woo honeymooners and active younger Japanese.

While there are around 30,000 Japanese weddings a year in Hawai’i, the goal is to crank that figure to 80,000 by 2008.

Another niche market could be the one million people in Japan who dance hula.

Japanese visitors look to the Neighbor Islands as places of diversity, and Baptiste has charged Kanoho and her industry’s leaders with the task of gathering to formulate strategies for drawing more Japanese visitors to the island’s shores.

Also emerging from long days of meetings and receptions in both Tokyo and Osaka was a commitment to maintain more frequent communications between Hawai’i and Japan government and tourism leaders.

Quarterly teleconferences was one suggestion, as opposed to visits every two years, he said.

Baptiste impressed on his Japanese contacts that Hawai’i and Kaua’i are “very, very safe” destinations, and made sure they understand the unbreakable bloodline existing between the island state and island country.

“Whether we like it or not, Japan is part of our culture. My kids are half Japanese,” he said.

“There is a close tie there, above the beaches and the mountains,” and the cultural ties remain important, Baptiste concluded.

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

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