Aloha Ke Akua ChapelAlthough the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) estimates that honeymooners and destination-wedding travelers make up only about 9% of the state's annual visitor count, it's a market tourism officials say is performing well and one Hawaii has pursued aggressively for more than 100 years.

"If you look at the history of Hawaii as a destination, it was founded on romance," said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. "I think it's important to maintain that. People can travel to many more places around the globe now, but I think we still have a real solid position as a destination where people can go for romance."

The Aloha State welcomed more than 510,000 honeymooners last year, an increase of 3.4% from 2010 and the most the Islands have seen since 2005, according to HTA statistics.

The number of travelers visiting Hawaii for a destination wedding was also up, climbing 1% year over year, to more than 117,000, while the state issued 2.9% more nonresident marriage licenses.

"And now 2012 is back roaring," said Sandy Gadd, the owner of Seattle-based Hawaiian Honeymoons. "There have been far more inquiries at this time of the year than we've had in the last two years, so much so that it's difficult to keep up."

A 27-year travel industry pro, Gadd said her business had been sluggish in 2010 and much of 2011, but she now believes people's attitudes about the economy are changing, and as a result, her honeymoon and weddings bookings to Hawaii have jumped.

"I'm hoping that we'll be up somewhere in the 20% to 25% range this year," she said. "But we'll see how it all turns out."

Hooking them early

More than 7.3 million visitors arrived in Hawaii last year; of that number, more than 600,000 came for honeymoons or destination weddings.

"Although the numbers may not be as big as some people expect, they're significant," Talwar said. "With our high satisfaction rate, we get a great repeat visitor count, so quite often, particularly for further points off the West Coast, it's a way for us to get people to experience Hawaii who may just think of us as an island like their islands closer to home, whether that's the Caribbean or down in Florida or Mexico.

"It allows people to experience the diversity Hawaii offers, and what we've found is that once they've come here, we're on the rotation and they tend to come back," he said.

Sheri Brightwell, a destination weddings and honeymoon specialist at U.S. Travel in Woodinville, Wash., has seen many of her Hawaii clients return to the islands for anniversaries and multigenerational family visits.

"It's a continuing trend; once they go, they like to experience it again," Brightwell said. "I would say at least 30% have returned to Hawaii within a two-year period.

"For the younger generation that's getting married, they're returning with their families, and for the older generation, that are getting married later in life, they're returning with their grown children," she said.

Resilient demand

Jay TalwarIncreasing fuel costs, and their impact on airfares, are a source of growing concern for many with a stake in the success of Hawaii's visitor industry, but Talwar said all of the wholesalers, online travel agencies and airline packagers he's spoken with recently insist that business remains brisk.

"Demand is through the roof," he said. "If you look at airfares as a reflection of that demand, in Q4 they were up 26.3% vs. a year ago, which is healthy growth. And what that's signaling to the airline industry is there is room for more lift.

"From the U.S. West, we're looking at 2012 being about 5% on top of the growth we had in 2011, which is pretty significant in this economy and this environment with gas prices," Talwar said.

Brightwell said more expensive seats haven't affected her business to the Islands thus far this year.

"Let's put it this way: You can't find any space on any of these flights out of here because they're sold out," Brightwell explained.

"People in Washington want to get out of the rain, so they may complain about the airfare being higher or the tax being higher," she said. "But trust me, it's not going to keep them from getting on the plane."
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