Although cruise products were only responsible for about 3% of the more than 7 million visitors who traveled to Hawaii last year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority's (HTA) senior vice president of brand management, David Uchiyama, insists the market remains key for the Aloha State. In a recent conversation with Shane Nelson, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Uchiyama said his organization is working hard to increase cruise business to the Islands in coming years.

David UchiyamaQ: Given that cruise makes up such a small percentage of Hawaii's overall visitor arrivals, how significant is it to the state's tourism industry?

Cruising is very important, in part, because it doesn't require any additional structure on land, and it helps us create a greater inventory of sleeping accommodations. The other nice thing about the cruise industry is the dispersal to the Neighbor Islands is pretty even because they port at almost all the islands in most cases. And we find that a lot of these people that go on cruises are looking to get a big-picture experience of our islands, and in a lot of cases they then return to the specific island that they felt a connection to for later land vacations. So that dispersal throughout the state is important because I think it forces exposure to the Neighbor Islands, which is really helpful in generating return visitors and offering a sampling of each of the islands that's a nice introduction. … The expenditures into the state using tours and activities when they port at each of the islands is a nice complementing factor.

Q: What is the outlook for 2013 in terms of cruise business to Hawaii?

We're looking for a slight increase. It's interesting because the number of ships that we will have arriving to Hawaii in 2013 is going to be down slightly from the previous year. We're going to go from 23 ships coming in the previous year to 19 ships, but the number of times they visit or port will be greater this year than in 2012. So at the end of 2013, in terms of passengers, we're looking at coming in just below 300,000 in [cruise] arrivals, where I believe in 2012 we'll end up around 270,000 to 275,000.

Q: Aside from Norwegian Cruise Line, which is the only high-capacity cruise company with an U.S.-flagged ship permanently berthed in Hawaii, which companies are currently providing cruise products in Hawaii?

You've got Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Silversea, Princess and Royal Caribbean. … Disney was a new entrant last year.

Q: UnCruise Adventures is another company on that list, and they offer pretty small sailings, with under 50 passengers, among the islands. Who sends the largest ships in terms of passenger capacity?

In terms of passengers and capacity, the Princess line would have the largest, and they are at the top end in terms of actual ship size. The largest ship in terms of length would be the Disney Wonder. But capacity-wise it's the Princess line. Each of their different ships is above 2,500 passengers.

Q: What sort of impact did losing the two Norwegian ships a few years ago have on cruise business to the Islands?

Princess Cruises Sapphire Princess HawaiiA:
It was a substantial loss because it affected us in terms of air seats, as well. NCL is pretty much the only cruise line that requires people to fly in to get onboard their vessels, so we had multiple impacts on that. You not only lost the number of berths in the market, but you also lose roughly 500,000 air seats [annually] that were attached … with serving those berths.

Q: Why isn't there more cruise business to Hawaii?

I think we need to improve our efforts and relationships with the cruise lines. Last year was the first year we attended Cruise Shipping Miami [the industry's largest convention and trade show]. We learned a lot. There's a lot of stuff that we need to improve to make it a better business model for the cruise ships to come here. It's very similar to what we found with the airlines. We needed to do some restructuring ourselves so that we could create a flow of new routes and air carriers coming into the market. The same thing needs to happen for the cruise ship industry.

Scheduling of the ships, for example, is an area I think we could improve, coming up with a master schedule for all of the islands. Having a cruise ship in each port on a daily basis or a weekly basis is something that I'd like to see so that the passenger experience is optimized. We are able, in a lot of the ports, to have one ship, but because of scheduling in some cases, we've had two ships in a port, and that gets to be a little bit overwhelming for the ground activities and excursions because they are not used to having that kind of number come into port all at once. If we can better manage that, I think the overall experience is going to be better, and we'll be able to optimize our ports and gain better expenditures into the Neighbor Islands.

Q: Is the HTA currently working to implement some of those changes?

There are some logistical adjustments we need to make that will make us a little bit better and more ready to receive ships. We've already started discussions with the Department of Transportation, and we will also be sitting down with [Department of Land and Natural Resources]. And then eventually what we'd like to do, in terms of building relationships, is have our cruise ship partners come into town, so they can sit with all of us, and we can iron out some of these logistical issues.

I think once we do that, it will really help us, and the cruise ship lines will see us as a little bit more receptive to receiving these ships. Some of the things we are working on now I think will affect us positively in 2014.

Itineraries are already developed through 2013 and to a degree the first half of '14.

Q: Is the Jones Act, the law requiring foreign-flagged ships to first port in a foreign country before arriving in Hawaii, a major limitation to the state's cruise industry potential?

It is a limitation. Ultimately, if we had more ships that could be like [Norwegian] and be ported here, then we could fly people in and do multi-island itineraries. As it is, the foreign-flagged ships usually [stop at] a Mexican port and then come over to Hawaii. Usually their itineraries run for three or four islands. I'm looking at an itinerary here for Princess Cruises, which are all foreign-flagged, and they're going to Nawiliwili [on Kauai], Honolulu, Lahaina [on Maui] and then they actually go to Hilo [on the Big Island], but there are things we still can do to help facilitate a better business model in receiving these ships to Hawaii. If we can improve how we receive foreign-flagged ships ... I think there would be an opportunity for more of these cruise lines to add Hawaii on to their itineraries.

[Some cruise lines] have ships in the Pacific running down the Western Seaboard, from Alaska all the way down to Mexico, and with some of the safety issues and concerns in that country, they were looking for other options in their itineraries. Rather than stopping in several ports along the Mexican coastline, for example, porting once in Mexico and then coming over to Hawaii would be a real attractive option. Part of our concern is if they start to move their ships out of the Pacific and into the Atlantic, then we lose the potential to grow capacity in the future. So that's why we are trying to address some of these scheduling things as quickly as possible.

Q: What are the HTA and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau doing to help agents sell existing cruise products to Hawaii?

The cruise ship companies do a really good job of training retail agents about how to sell their cruise ships, so for the actual product itself, a lot of that is in the hands of the cruise ship companies. The HVCB, on the site, has developed a specialist training program called Kekula O Hawaii where we give retail travel agents a tiered learning approach. The first tier is the basics followed by a second tier, and in the third tier agents become real specialists by [specific] island, and there is a cruise education component to our online training program. And, of course, all of our marketing contractors are out there doing seminars and workshops and road shows on an ongoing basis.
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