The Aloha State is likely to see a nearly 2% increase in visitors traveling to the Islands from the U.S. mainland this year, according to a Feb. 27 forecast by the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii (UHERO).

Carl Bonham, a University of Hawaii economics professor and the UHERO executive director, said a strengthening U.S. economy is making it easier for domestic consumers to travel.

“We’ve seen much, much better performance out of the job market in the last 12 months than we did in 2013,” he told Travel Weekly. “That’s a big factor, [and] lower energy prices help, and we’re seeing overall better consumer confidence.”

Bonham expects increased domestic airlift to the Hawaiian Islands in 2015 to also provide a boost for the U.S. market, which produced nearly 5 million Hawaii visitors last year, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) figures.

“We’ve got strong growth in air seats coming from the mainland, and it’s going largely to the Neighbor Islands, which is where the available rooms are,” he said. “If you look at the period for February through April, the air seats outlook for Kahului [on Maui] is up almost 20% and to Kona [on the Big Island of Hawaii] you’re talking about the same size increase in airlift.”

Those numbers bode well for year-over-year tourism growth on the Neighbor Islands, where occupancy rates have been significantly lower than in persistently busy Waikiki.

“In peak periods it’s becoming pretty hard for people to find accommodations on Oahu, and we’re losing some inventory there for renovations in 2015,” Bonham said. “The Ihilani is shutting down in March, [and] the Ohana Waikiki West is also shutting down for renovations. So that just tightens things up.”

However, UHERO economists are forecasting a 2.7% decline in visitors from Japan, Hawaii’s largest international market, due to continuing economic concerns there and the weakening yen. The strength of the U.S. dollar could, in fact, hamper the number of American travelers who book a Hawaii vacation in 2015, according to Bonham.

“The one negative for Hawaii I guess, if you want to come up with one, is it’s cheaper to go to Canada this year,” he said. “It’s cheaper to go to Mexico. It’s cheaper to go to Europe than it has been in the past with those currency movements, and we’ll probably lose some of our U.S. visitors to other destinations.”

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