Thanks in part to an all-time spending mark set in December, Hawaii's 2011 visitor arrivals and expenditure totals reached levels the Aloha State hasn't enjoyed since 2007.

Preliminary figures released last week by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) showed travelers spent $1.3 billion across the Islands in December, boosting the destination's total 2011 visitor expenditures by more than 15% year over year, to $12.58 billion, a sum second only to 2007's peak of $12.61 billion.

Impressive December arrivals figures helped push Hawaii's total visitor count to 7.3 million in 2011, a 3.8% increase over 2010 and the fourth-highest total in state history.

"We thought with the disasters in Japan we would end up a lot lower," said Mike McCartney, the HTA's president and CEO.

Following the earthquake and tsunami in March, he said, "we launched a strategic tourism recovery plan and worked hard with the industry to try to increase lift from places like Korea, Oceania and Canada."

He added, "We're pleased with where we came out, because we thought the year was going to be a lot tougher than what it actually yielded."

Although total visitors from the Japanese market were off by about 5% last year, arrivals from other Asian countries jumped more than 20%, while visitors from Oceania and Canada surged 31.7% and 17.9%, respectively.

"In Canada, Australia, China and even Japan, the [U.S.] dollar is a little weaker and their currency is stronger," McCartney said. "We've been taking advantage of that because Hawaii is so well positioned in the region. Travel is an export, and we're the fifth-largest entry port in the U.S."

Arrivals from the mainland U.S. also finished the year higher, with visitors from Western states up 2.4% over 2010 and those from the East climbing 2%. Travelers also stayed longer: Total visitor days in Hawaii increased 5.4%.

Mainland U.S. business to the Islands was even better in 2011 for Minneapolis-based MLT Vacations. According to company Co-president and Chief Marketing Officer Ken Pomerantz, the tour operator's year-over-year Hawaii growth percentages far outpaced the HTA figures.

"Our business was up over 40%, and our revenue was up over 50%," Pomerantz said, adding that a sizeable chunk of that growth was generated by their debut of the United Vacations product Jan. 1 last year. "But I can tell you that our existing [Delta and Worry-Free Vacations] brands grew at much more than the 3% or so Hawaii reported."

Airlift gets a boost

Hawaii visitor spending sank to $9.8 billion in 2009, a six-year low for the destination that stemmed, in part, from a 15% cut in available air seats following the collapse of Aloha Airlines and ATA in the spring of 2008.

Although air seats to the state remain 11% short of 2006's peak, HTA officials said carriers were flying smaller planes with higher load factors in 2011, and total seats increased 1% over 2010.

"One of the real positive things for 2012 is this new airlift from New York from Hawaiian Airlines," McCartney said. "And we just had the announcement that United is going to fly daily to Honolulu out of Washington, D.C. Those flights are going to open up a lot of opportunities for us."

Both McCartney and Pomerantz expect growth for Hawaii in 2012, a forecast supported by Kelly Sanders, the general manager at the 1,636-room Sheraton Waikiki.

"I think the future looks bright," he said. "From all of the preliminary numbers I'm seeing, we're ahead of pace right now over last year in every single month through August, and that's a very good sign."
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