HILO -- Teaching travel agents about the Big Island's size and
preserving its undeveloped open spaces are the major challenges
outgoing Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director Ken "Bones"
Johnston will pass on to his replacement, George Applegate.
Both Johnston, who at age 70 will retire March 31 after 13 years
at the helm of the visitors bureau, and Applegate, who takes over
April 1, agree that what makes their destination special is the
fact that the island is not overdeveloped or overpopulated.
Applegate has been at the visitors bureau for 11 years as
director of sales and marketing. Both Johnston and Applegate said
that their primary job is to market the island to visitors and
agents, but they also emphasized that too many visitors could
destroy the place.
Their job, they said, is to balance tourism growth and
preservation of the island's natural resources. They also know
there are more immediate practical tasks to running a visitors
Putting out good, solid information to travel agents is one of
"If a travel agent books a client in a hotel on the Kona side of
the island and that client wants to see the Hawaii Volcanoes
National Park, which is the most popular place on the island, he's
going to have to drive 100 miles each way," said Johnston.
"So, we try to educate agents to book clients into Hilo [30
miles from the park] for a couple of days if they want to see the
volcano, then put them on the Kona side for a couple of days."
Johnston said Hawaii Volcanoes National Park gets about 3
million visitors a year whereas the Big Island gets only 1.2
million overnight visitors a year.
An ongoing challenge is to capture some of those visitors who
come from Honolulu just for the day to see the volcano on the Big
"We want to show our visitors as much of the island as we can,
but if that park is one of the most visited attractions on the
island, it behooves us to get some of those day visitors" to stay
overnight, said Johnston.
Johnston said he has spent his entire adult life promoting the
destination by working in the travel industry there.
The most important challenge Applegate will have is to keep the
island from becoming overdeveloped, said Johnston.
The island's appeal is the fact that it is underdeveloped, he
"We need to address the carrying capacity of this place," said
Johnston. "You can't destroy the reasons people come to visit
"How much is enough? You can't go out to the world and say:
'Stop coming.' But what you can do is get the same amount of
visitors to stay longer.
"We're not anti-development, but we need to make sure our
visitor numbers grow in proportion to our infrastructure. We need
to make sure we have good, orderly growth." Applegate agrees that
"orderly" growth is what the Big Island needs in order to retain
"The biggest challenge we have is to keep this place beautiful,"
said Applegate. "If you have a nice, beautiful forest, the best
thing that can happen is no one walks into that forest.
"But to make an economic benefit, we need to bring people to
that forest. So, instead of bringing everyone to that one forest,
we bring everyone to 10 different forests. It's still better if no
one goes, but if you put everyone on 10 trails in 10 forests, it's
not so bad."
Promoting tourism to the Big Island "is not all about money,"
said Applegate. "If we can keep this a good, safe place for local
people, tourists will come."
Johnston said that in all his years in the tourism business (he
also was a fixture at National Car Rental before joining the
visitors bureau), the biggest event was getting international
status at the Keahole-Kona Airport four years ago.
"If anything happened to us that impacted us the most from a
visitor standpoint, it was the lengthening of the runway and
getting the customs station at the Kona airport," said Johnston.
"Once we got the longer runway in, we started lobbying for
international status there."
Having that international status allows the Big Island to tell
the world that "there's nothing written that you have to fly into
Honolulu first, then visit the other islands from there, you can
start in Kona," said Johnston.
Johnston said after he turns over the reins to Applegate, he
hopes to continue on the bureau's board of directors.
"I'm going to have a hard time leaving this business," said
Johnston. "The Big Island is an easy sell. It's contagious."