New visitors bureau director: 'Orderly' growth is the ideal

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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 bureau.

Putting out good, solid information to travel agents is one of those tasks.

"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 Island.

"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 said.

"We need to address the carrying capacity of this place," said Johnston. "You can't destroy the reasons people come to visit us.

"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 its appeal.

"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."

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