Maui winning big with sports tourism


HONOLULU -- Maui is making its mark in the world of sports tourism with the ongoing success of its premier off-road triathlon.

Now in its seventh year, the Nissan Xterra World Championship gathers some of the sport's best athletes in Wailea every October immediately following the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona.

It also provides a $3.5 million boost to the island and sparks interest in the destination across the country.

The Ironman, which draws 1,500 top athletes -- plus their families and friends -- has become readily identified with Kona and sustained tourism on the Big Island.

Many choose to stick around an extra week for a shot at the "double" prize, awarded to the male and female athletes with the best combined times from Ironman and Xterra.

At this year's Xterra, people arrived from 20 countries and 30 states. But the event's reach extends far beyond the competitors and their companions. First televised on ESPN, the race -- and the island -- are now featured on CBS on Super Bowl Sunday.

"I want it to shine a big spotlight on Hawaii," said Tom Kiely, president of TEAM Unlimited, the firm that organizes Xterra races across the country and produces the television shows.

Sports and travel together are a rapidly growing industry, and Hawaii increasingly is merging the two entities, whether it's geared toward the participant, spectator or brand recognition.

Most spikes in visitor arrivals in the past year occurred around sporting events, and this year's Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 8 is experiencing record-breaking entries (officials anticipate 31,000).

The Hawaii Tourism Authority spent $7.3 million promoting 19 sporting events last year, with $1.8 million devoted to hosting and televising six PGA events and $4.8 million allocated to the NFL's Pro Bowl.

It seems to be working. "Travel agents have told us they get renewed interest" in Maui after television specials like the Xterra race, said Marsha Wienert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

Super Bowl Sunday has been dubbed Super Maui Sunday by tourism officials because both Xterra and the Skins golf game at Wailea will play before an audience that is, for the most part, stuck in snow.

"You can't buy that kind of [exposure]," she added.

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