Aiming to Spread the Tourism Wealth

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Reed Travel Features

HONOLULU -- Towns, plantations and tourism -- they are closely related in a state of 1.2 million that depends on tour-ism for one-third of its jobs.

The state aims at dispersing visitors more evenly throughout the islands, especially to neighbor island areas with lower hotel occupancy.

The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's marketing emphasizes the 50th state's cultural and scenic diversity, which makes it different and attractive as a destination.

Promoting sun, sand and surf was not enough to sustain tourism. HVCB research shows a static beach market, with aging baby boomers opting for other vacations, and many competitive beach destinations nearer their markets also have beaches.

Hawaii's rural areas around the coasts have much to offer, and plantation towns have been quietly undergoing restoration under Main Street programs.

There are new attractions, and there is much to see and experience.

The Japanese, arriving in record numbers last year and Hawaii's only major growth market, stay mainly in high-occupancy Waikiki, which has half the state's rooms.

The rural areas are more dependent on a lackluster mainland market, whose numbers are still way below their 1990 peak.

Some communities also have lost their cultural and economic base -- the sugar plantation.

Within the last year, the last plantations closed on Oahu and the Big Island, and cane acreage was reduced on Kauai.

Hawaii has only four sugar plantations left. (See related story, Page H4.)

Sugar no longer is the industry it was. In the 1930s, before mechanization, it accounted for one-third of jobs. It now accounts for less than 0.5%

However, it is still the top agricultural earner, and its decline has dampened local economies that never recovered from Hawaii's dramatic tourism downturn between 1991 and 1993.

This decline has contributed to Hawaii's being one of the poorest-performing economies in the country.

Hawaii has been losing jobs for four years, longer than California did during its slump.

Last year, Hawaii saw an estimated 6,858,000 visitors, a 3.5% gain over 1995, but still below the record number of almost 7 million of 1990, according to HVCB.

Mainland arrivals, totaling 3,276,000 increased 2%, but were still 18% below those of 1989, the peak year for the market. The Japanese, however, came in record numbers, increasing 6.5% to 2,130,000.

Also, shorter stays have affected both westbound and eastbound markets, and because of a decline in the yen against the dollar, Japanese visitors lost 30% of their purchasing power here in the last year.

According to management consultants PKF-Hawaii, the statewide average hotel occupancy was down slightly for the first 11 months of last year -- 76.6%, vs. 76.9% for the period in 1995.

Waikiki, at 81.2%, was down 2 percentage points.

The state is banking on the $200 million Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki, set to open in 1998, to bring in new business.

With its planning came fears of a shortage of first class rooms in Waikiki to satisfy both the Japanese and the new large conventions.

The travel industry, construction industry and business community as well as the city administration pushed for new zoning laws that would permit the redevelopment of Waikiki hotels to satisfy the shortage.

Last month, Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris signed into law his plans for the district's revitalization.

Gone are Waikiki's strict zoning laws, which stymied new hotel development for 20 years and kept old hotel buildings standing.

Hotel owners and developers can build taller and larger projects in return for retaining more open space.

The controversial issue was opposed mainly by Waikiki residents and three of the nine city council members, who fear overbuilding.

The new laws will bring business to Hawaii's construction industry, which has not been the same since the hotel -building boom of the '80s and early '90s. However, the industry has enjoyed a mini-boom in Oahu retail building.

Oahu is developing as a shopping mecca for foreign visitors, particularly the Japanese.

Developments include the 40-outlet Waikele Factory Stores in central Oahu and Honolulu's waterfront Aloha Tower Marketplace, with 100 stores and restaurants.

Ala Moana Center, Hawaii's largest shopping center, is undergoing major expansion.

Also, Dole Cannery is being expanded and transformed from a pineapple-themed Hawaiian-product shopping facility to one of factory outlets.

Maui, the most popular neighbor island for the Japanese, also is enjoying an expansion in shopping, particularly around Kahului Airport.

The Big Island's Kona and Kohala coasts have seen dramatic visitor growth since last June, when JAL started nonstop 747 service between Narita Airport and Kona.

However, Japanese visitor growth does not seem to have benefited the Big Island's east coast and its county town of Hilo, except for, perhaps, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Moreover, the whole east coast has lost its sugar plantations.

Off the major islands, Kauai, where sugar has declined, gets the smallest number of Japanese visitors, and its tourism has not fully recovered from 1992's Hurricane Iniki.

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