Visitor numbers recovering: June arrivals up in West Hawaii

Visitors swim and snorkel at Kahalu‘u Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — More visitors came to Hawaii Island last month than in June 2018, although the island’s year-to-date numbers have yet to catch up.

But Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, is confident this year’s numbers will ultimately come out ahead by the end of 2019.


“For us to be only 5% down year-to-date after June is really a good testament to say that we’re well on our way to a full recovery through the year,” said Birch on Tuesday.

Heading forward, he said, he expects “at least double digit increases” compared to last year.

He also anticipates that at the end of the year, the island will surpass its 2018 arrivals by a margin in the high single digits.

This past June, Hawaii Island welcomed close to 164,000 visitors, up 9% from June 2018, according to state data.

The first few months of 2018 were shaping up for a fantastic year for tourism on the island until the eruption at the start of May. In the second half of last year, Hawaii Island saw a double-digit drop in visitor arrivals every month compared to 2017 except December, when the drop was 9%.

What was in March 2018 a 13.4% year-to-date increase in visitors over the first three months of 2017 was by the end of the year a 2.5% drop in total arrivals to the island.

The biggest impact was with the state’s largest international market, Japan.

In the last quarter of 2018, only 13,000 visitors a month or fewer were coming to Hawaii Island from Japan compared to the 16,000 to nearly 18,000 a month counted in the last quarter of 2017.

The drop was particularly notable on the island’s east side. At its nadir, Japanese visitors to Hilo were down more than 51% in August 2018 compared to August 2017.

But Birch said he’s seeing some good news in the latest numbers, and he pointed to a “real pick-up” in the number of daytrips to the island.

This past June, there were 2,325 recorded daytrips by Japanese visitors to this island, an increase of more than 53% over June 2018, “which is a really good indicator that our activities are starting to come back on board,” Birch said.

The number of Japanese visitors to Hilo was also up 30% over June 2018.

June is also the second month in a row in which total visits to Kona grew compared to June of last year.

The west side of the island saw just over 146,000 visitors last month, an increase of 9% and a larger increase than was recorded between May 2018 and May 2019.

In the first half of this year, West Hawaii saw 779,617 visitors. That’s still about 3% below last year’s six-month running total, but the gap has been closing.

And some smaller companies in the region are also seeing business returning to its normal level.

“We’re super busy right now,” said Iko Balanga who owns Anelakai Adventures with his wife Holly Crane. “We’ve actually been turning down work for a long time.”

About 90% of what the company does is its night manta ray snorkel-and-viewing tours on double-hulled canoes. The company also offers a day-time cultural tour that immerses guests in the history of Keauhou.

Crane said they were still busy a month or so after the eruption began last May, saying it wasn’t until mid-to-late August that things “really dropped off” and affected a six-month period.

“We really didn’t start feeling back to normal till like the holidays,” she said.

Fortunately, Balanga said, their small operation kept them fairly busy despite the dip and said they weren’t struggling.

“The nice thing about being a small business,” he said, “we do stay steady.”

The couple also said they’ve been seeing an uptick in people looking for different kinds of experiences when they visit the islands.

This past year, Balanga said, they’ve seen a lot more people looking for “more of a cultural adventure” with a smaller, local feel.

Additionally, said Crane, people are looking for less invasive and more environmentally friendly choices.

“People are more and more looking for that type of experience,” she said. “So we’ve definitely been a lot busier because of that I think.”

And through the recovery process, Birch said, it’s a great opportunity to focus on directing tourism and directing it around the island.

“So as we’re growing our numbers back, we’re looking at those opportunities,” he said. “We’re looking at those areas to spread it around to get visitors more out of the over-inundated areas, get them to do different things and then work with partners that are established and can provide that product.”

And with some major attractions like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park still not up to full speed, Birch said moving forward will include working with companies like Anelakai Adventures and “providing that interesting experience.”

“It’s kind of right up that alley,” he said.

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