Travelers were awfully kind to the Aloha State last year, visiting Hawaii in what state officials expect will be record-breaking numbers while spending more money across the destination in the first 11 months of 2012 than in any other full-calendar year.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) will release its 2012 visitor arrivals and spending figures later this month, but according to its most recent report, Hawaii travelers spent $12.9 billion through November, surpassing the state's previous all-time 12-month high of $12.6 billion generated in 2007.
And HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney has already said the destination's peak visitor arrivals figure of 7.6 million, set in 2006, could also be eclipsed.
"In July, the HTA board of directors approved aggressive targets to reach 7.89 million visitors," he said in December. "At the current pace, we anticipate reaching, if not exceeding, these targets."
Booming business on Oahu, and especially in Waikiki, has been the major driving force behind Hawaii's record-breaking year, and hoteliers on the state's most populated island have benefited dramatically from growing international markets in Asia and Oceania.
Oahu has been so busy, however, that some U.S. travel agents and tour operators have found booking rooms there challenging in recent months, leading vacation sellers to increasingly turn to Neighbor Islands visits for clients interested in Hawaii getaways.
"In 2013, we're seeing the Honolulu business is remaining relatively flat thus far, and we are actually anticipating a slight decline in Oahu business this year," said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, adding that his company began to see hotel inventories on the island tighten substantially during Q4 2012.
"We are seeing a pickup in Maui," he continued. "But we are seeing larger pickups in Kauai and the Big Island, and that is a result of Oahu being very, very popular."
The latest HTA data also suggest interest in the Neighbor Islands is building. During what is traditionally a softer shoulder season for Hawaii, arrivals to the Big Island jumped 17.5% year over year in November, those to Kauai surged 13.3% and Maui saw an 8% increase.
Along with the compression occurring on Oahu, the Neighbor Islands are benefiting directly from improved access. In November, available airs seats on nonstop flights to Kauai soared 27.2%, while the Big Island saw a 25.2% increase and seats to Maui climbed more than 15%.
"We've worked really hard with the carriers to see the benefit of direct service to the Neighbor Islands," said David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the HTA. "And I think they've realized, particularly coming out of the West Coast, the huge impact of getting people to their vacation experience quickly."
Rebranding taking hold
About 18 months ago the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), the state's North American marketing contractor, launched a branding campaign aimed at showcasing the distinct character of each of Hawaii's six visitor islands and the variety of activities available at each destination.
"For a long time we were marketing as Hawaii, and I think a lot of people lost the variety of experiences we have here," Uchiyama said. "The transition to the Hawaiian Islands has made a huge difference in helping share with people the experiences on each of the islands and the fact that they each have their own personality."
James Tedesco, marketing director for Gogo Worldwide Vacations, said the new branding has been a big help for the company's travel agent partners.
"Knowing that there are islands better for travelers interested in history or those who prefer adventure and so forth, agents can use that to pair options together creating a vacation individuals want," he explained.
Tedesco said Gogo will be upgrading its agent website in the next couple of months, including more Neighbor Island information along with educational tools aimed at improving sales to the destinations. But those interested in immediate insight can learn more at the HVCB's agent.gohawaii.com site. Prominently featured throughout the organization's online training program, Ke Kula O Hawaii, Neighbor Island specifics have become a growing focus of the website since the Hawaiian Islands rebranding.
"We have six visitor islands, and none of them are anything alike," said Julie Zadeh, managing director of travel trade marketing for the HVCB. "But we've got a number of tools online to help the travel agent community understand the different experiences each of the islands will afford their clients."
Choosing the right island
Longtime Hawaii sellers know clients interested in high-end retail shopping or a range of vibrant nightlife options are probably not a good fit for a stay on Kauai, nor are those eager to see molten lava likely to be happy visiting only Maui. But each of the Neighbor Islands also offers travelers substantial regional differences.
"The beaches on the north shore of Kauai are just phenomenal, particularly in the summertime when you've got lower surf there," said Paula Simpson Takamori, the owner of Oahu-based Travel to Paradise. "Similarly, in the wintertime, the beaches on the south shore are wonderful."
For Rhonda Shumway, a longtime Hawaii specialist working for TerraMar Travel in Hemet, Calif., Kauai is a good option for clients interested in old Hawaii charm and tropical beauty.
"They've really stuck to that Kauai rule of nothing can be built there taller than a coconut tree," she said. "So their resorts are built into the environment rather than the tall high-rise condo projects you see elsewhere."
Maui, on the other hand, is often seen as a mixture of the stunning natural scenery and relaxed vibe found on Kauai with more of the upscale dining and retail shopping available on Oahu.
"There's still a more leisurely pace on Maui," Zadeh said. "It's not quite as relaxed as Kauai but not nearly as active as Oahu. You've also got the fusion cuisine in great restaurants on Maui, local artisans and lots of small adventures.
Along with some of the state's most gorgeous white-sand beaches, Maui's home to several excellent golf courses, specialty farm tours and, of course, Haleakala, the Valley Isle's 10,000-foot, dormant volcano.
Maui also features some of Hawaii's best humpback whale-watching from late December to early April.
"Honestly, in that channel between Maui and the other islands, it's like whale soup," Takamori said with a laugh. "They're jumping everywhere in January and February."
For clients intrigued by extraordinary natural diversity, however, the Big Island is home to a stunning array of varied climate zones, including the frequently snow-covered peak of Mauna Kea, the lush rain forests on the Hilo side, or the sandy beaches and jagged rock of the vast lava fields on the Kona side, not to mention the molten lava spilling out of continually erupting Kilauea.
Linda Dancer, another longtime Hawaii specialist working for Buford, Ga.-based Honeymoons Inc., recalled experiencing the Big Island's striking natural diversity at Halemaumau crater at Volcanoes National Park.
"At the top, closer to the visitors center, you're in a rain forest, and it's so tropical, lush and green," she said. "Usually there's a little bit of rain spitting on the windshield as you start the drive down, and then you get to the bottom of the crater and it stinks of sulfur. It's dry. It's barren. It's like you just landed on the moon."