The number of Japanese tourists visiting Hawaii is expected to drop dramatically following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck last week.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has already estimated damages from the wave that hit Hawaii will cost tens of millions of dollars.

But the true effect could be much greater, as Japan is the source of 18 percent of Hawaii’s tourists. By Monday night, Japan’s Nikkei Stock Index had nosedived more than 12 percent.

Hawaii tourism experts say it’s not uncommon for Japanese tourists to stay home after a natural disaster.

“Japan is most affected by events that potentially would affect the traveler in terms of sensitivity or personal health,” says Frank Haas, dean of hospitality, business and legal education at Kapiolani Community College and former assistant dean for the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “The biggest effect that we’ve seen in Japan was the SARS scare. That affected outbound travel from Japan and arrivals in Hawaii probably more than anything else.”

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare took place between Nov. 2002 and July 2003.

During those years, Japanese visitors from Hawaii declined 9.6 percent from 1,483,121 in 2002 to 1,340,034 in 2003.

If Hawaii experiences a SARS-like dip in tourism from the earthquake and tsunami, the cost could be severe.

In January 2011, the average Japanese tourist spent $262 a day in Hawaii and the average visit lasted 5.9 days, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Each visit accounted for approximately $1,546 spent in the state.

Using those numbers, a back of the envelope calculation shows that Hawaii could lose as much as $220 million.

The table below shows how Hawaii’s toursim from Japan changed between 2001 and 2005.

Japanese Tourism to Hawaii During SARS Scare by Year

Year Number of Visitors From Japan to Hawaii Percent Change From Previous Year
2001 1,528,563 -15.9%
2002 1,483,121 -2.9%
2003 1,340,034 -9.6%
2004 1,482,085 +10.6%
2005 1,517,439 +2.3%

Between Dec. 2002 and Jan. 2003 alone, Hawaii saw 33,794 fewer visitors from Japan. The table below shows the month-by-month drop during the SARS scare.

Japanese Tourism to Hawaii During SARS Scare by Month

Month Number of Visitors From Japan to Hawaii Percent Change From Previous Month
October, 2002 131,921 +0.4%
November, 2002 120,062 -8.9%
December, 2002 159,179 +32.6%
January, 2003 125,385 -21.2%
February, 2003 122,525 -2.3%
March, 2003 105,476 -13.9%
April, 2003 67,649 -35.9%
May, 2003 72,718 +7.5%
june, 2003 84,381 +16.0%
July, 2003 99,600 +18.0%
August, 2003 133,280 +33.8%
September, 2003 130,458 +2.1%
October, 2003 127,358 -2.4%

The last time Japan suffered a major earthquake, Hawaii did not take a hit. The 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe struck in 1995.

Tourism from Japan actually increased from 1995 to 1996 by more than 98,000 people.

But, the Kobe quake hardly compares to Japan’s most recent.

“Comparing (the recent earthquake) to the Kobe earthquake, I think there were 6,500 deaths or so and 20,000 injuries — this is a whole order of magnitude bigger,” Haas told Civil Beat. “I really don’t think we know what the effect is going to be. The other difference with this event is the involvement of the nuclear power plant.”

Could Japan’s current crisis affect Hawaii tourism in the same way that Sept. 11 affected mainland U.S. travel to the islands?

“I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say,” Haas said. “There will certainly be a short term effect, and the situation obviously has to be handled very sensitively.”

After the towers fell in 2001, tourists from both coasts of the U.S. decreased sharply. Total mainland visits dropped close to 10 percent from 2001 to 2002. The table below shows how tourism numbers fell after Sept. 11.

Visitor Arrivals From U.S. Mainland Coasts to Hawaii Post-Sept. 11 By Year

U.S. Coast 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
East Coast 1,601,238 1,712,712 1,588,164 1,582,563 1,653,357 1,805,377 1,929,294
West Coast 2,308,836 2,432,444 2,372,070 2,486,914 2,609,862 2,768,002 3,032,492
East Coast Percent Change From Previous Year +6.1% +6.9% -7.3% -0.4% +2.6% +9.2% +6.9%
West Coast Percent Change From Precious Year +8.6% +5.4% -2.5% +4.8% +4.9% +6.1% +9.6%
State Percent Change From Previous Year +14.7% +12.3% -9.8% +4.4% +7.5% +15.3% +16.5%

Some flights from Japan have been canceled.

“There have been some cancellations for travel to Hawaii and we are continuing to monitor the situation closely,” Momi Akimseu, communications and tourism brand manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority told Civil Beat in an e-mail. “At this point, our focus has been on assisting those passengers who were unable to return to Japan on March 10 and March 11, 2011.”

Akimseu said the tourism authority needs more time to assess the true effect of the disaster on Hawaii.

One thing that is certain: If Japanese tourism does slow down, Oahu will feel the brunt of it. The island received about half of all Japanese visitors in 2009.