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HAWAII ISLAND – State-funded tourism agencies are spending $4.4 million to expand the Big Island’s appeal to domestic and international visitors no longer being lured by an active volcano.
Changing visitor perceptions from the “volcano island” to the “island of endless adventures” is the objective of the multiyear marketing campaign launched jointly by the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, a nonprofit the HTA hires to market the islands.
Kilauea volcano was a “one-legged stool” that attracted millions of people to one of the world’s most active and accessible eruptions, said one tourism official.
“When that goes away, that’s why we’re in the situation of rebranding Hawaii Island to the Japanese,” said Eric Takahata, managing director for the Hawaii Tourism Japan branch of HTA, which serves as the state’s marketing arm. He likened it to Los Angeles losing Disneyland.
The eruption ended last September following 35 years of continuous activity and several months of intense lava flows, leaving the island’s top tourist attraction less appealing. That, combined with last year’s deadly earthquakes and flooding in Japan, has resulted in 32 percent fewer Japanese visitors to the Big Island through March, Takahata said.
Speaking in a conference call from Japan, he said the situation has created an “extra sense of urgency for us,” noting the necessity of maintaining the direct flights Japan Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines operate in to and out of Kona International Airport.
Hawaii Tourism Japan is spending $700,000 solely on the Big Island marketing campaign through the fiscal year that ends June 30 and will invest another $1 million during the coming fiscal year, Takahata said.
To appeal to mainland markets, HTA is paying $1.2 million exclusively for Big Island tourism promotion this fiscal year and will get $1.5 million to continue the effort next year with strategies targeting print, video and social media, said Jay Talwar, HVCB chief marketing officer. The Big Island will also receive a larger share of promotional money divided between the islands, Talwar said.
Funding comes from a portion of the transient accommodations tax imposed on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
“What we want to do is put a light on all those unique experiences that can only be had on the island of Hawaii,” Talwar said.
Those experiences typically involve exploring natural areas like a historic valley, a rare green sand beach and a mountaintop considered sacred by some Hawaiians.
“I tell people, ‘If you’re going to come to this island for nightlife, you came to the wrong island,’” said David Human, a commercial driver for Kona-based Kailani Tours Hawaii.
Human, a driver for the past four years, said he’s seen business taper off and had a half-empty van during a recent tour to Akaka Falls State Park in Honomu.
“We certainly could use an infusion,” he said when told about the new tourism promotion.
Human, who said he also takes visitors to Rainbow Falls in Hilo and Punaluu Black Sand Beach near Pahala, feels the marketing approach is appropriate.
“I think this island is much better situated to the adventure seeker,” he said.
The Big Island’s total number of mainland visitors through March has reached 2018’s pre-eruption peak, with a boost in Kona arrivals offsetting Hilo’s lower numbers, according to HTA data.
“Nature” attracted Mathilde Fouque to the Big Island, the first-time visitor from France said after emerging from the Akaka Falls State Park trailhead.
Fouque said she came to see Kilauea, not realizing the eruption had stopped, but has enjoyed exploring other areas.
The island’s tourist attractions are not all equally equipped to handle large-scale use, however. While Hawaii Volcanoes National Park relies on its own interpreters, maintenance personnel and even a federal police force to manage its visitors, many other areas don’t have these resources.
Some of the most popular often lack even basic amenities like accessible parking and public restrooms.
Examples include the 11,000-acre South Point area that features Green Sands Beach, the Mauna Kea summit and Waipio Valley, which became the island’s leading visitor destination while the national park was closed during last year’s eruption phase.
Locals who frequent these areas have long complained of over use, leading to the state’s controversial plans to regulate the mountaintop and the more than 275,000 people who journey yearly to Green Sands Beach, one of just four olivine beaches in the world.
“Something has to be done because it’s being treated as a park, but it’s not a park,” Waipio taro farmer Jim Cain said last September regarding the hundreds of people drawn daily to the valley’s black sand beach, where there’s no trash bins or lifeguard protection.
Treacherous conditions have affected public safety, with multiple rescues and drowning deaths having been reported since 2018.
“We’re very sensitive to that,” Talwar said when asked about the marketing campaign’s added impact on the island’s fragile natural areas.
Noting visitors may not understand, for example, how making a shortcut on a trail can damage both the land and ocean through runoff, Talwar said that during the past two years tourism promotions have included sharing local values and a respect for Hawaii in an effort to influence visitor behavior in a positive way.
HTA is also working with Hawaii County and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to address damage to natural attractions, he said.
“The good news is they’re looking for solutions,” Talwar said.
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