The wide sidewalks along the usually bustling Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki are empty, as are many of the stores, restaurants and famed beaches. In one of the peak tourism seasons of the year, there is no question that Hawaii is hurting.
Mark Dunkerley, incoming board chairman of the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, on Monday said the state and tourism industry face tremendous challenges and will need the help of government, business and the people to not only endure the recession but position itself for a strong rebound.
“This is the moment for bold investments in time, effort and money, such that when the economy turns, Hawaii is poised to take full advantage,” said Dunkerley, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines, speaking to more than 800 tourism and government leaders at the visitor bureau’s 106th annual luncheon.
Dunkerley urged them to update, improve and develop Hawaii’s infrastructure and product. The billions spent by hotels to renovate and expand has helped, but Hawaii cannot “fall into the self-satisfied slumber of believing that what we did yesterday will be enough to protect us tomorrow,” as competing destinations are heavily investing in their tourism industry, he said.
He said by not stepping up investments, Hawaii risks having the visitor experience fall short of the expectations created by its strong brand.
“Some would say this is already the case, and if we think that perspective has even a scintilla of truth, we are facing an even larger crisis than is visible now,” Dunkerley said. “In the travel business, if you are not moving ahead, you are falling behind.”
The slogan for this year’s luncheon was: “E alulike a kupaa,” which means: “To work together in unity, unwavering in our collective commitment to accomplishing our goals.”
The visitors bureau presented some its broad marketing efforts to lure tourists to the islands, including advertising, marketing and public relations.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he was confident Hawaii would get through this tourism downturn because action is being taken.
“It shows we’re not sleeping and just crying over our shoulders. We’re doing something about it,” Inouye said. “However, it will take the work of all of us. All of us have to pitch in. Sacrifices will have to be made.”
Visitor arrivals and spending are plummeting because of the economic turmoil across the globe. In October, Hawaii welcomed 13.5 percent fewer visitors by air than the same month last year. Visitor spending dropped by $124.6 million, or 12.9 percent, according to the latest state figures.
Dunkerley said individuals can contribute by making sure tourists they come across feel welcome.
“Now, more than ever, we must ensure that we are treating our visitors to the very best of Hawaii hospitality,” Dunkerley said. “With fewer visitors around, we can use this moment to focus renewed emphasis on imparting our storied aloha spirit.”
John Monahan, president and chief executive of the visitors bureau, said it has been battling news stories and a perception that Hawaii is too expensive. The agency has worked with wholesalers to offer deals and packages that make vacations to Hawaii hundreds less compared to last year.
“Given these dramatically changing economic times, HVCB will continue to position Hawaii as a value destination with great product,” he said.
Dunkerley said creating Hawaii’s well-known brand, to some degree, has come “at the expense of our becoming seen as uncompetetive as a value-for-money destination.”
“We shouldn’t see this as a criticism. It is, after all, the expected byproduct of the industry’s five-plus year focus on higher-spending, longer-staying visitors,” he said.
Dunkerley said the quick action by HVCB and the Hawaii Tourism Authority to emphasize value was the right response.
While largely subdued, officials at the luncheon expressed optimism.
“Hawaii has long been considered the role model for tourism globally, and if anyone is up to the challenge posed by the current economic situation, it’s the people in this room,” Dunkerley said.