Building on a strong 2016, visitor arrivals and spending in Hawaii are on pace to set records in 2017. The outlook for 2018 is looking pretty sunny too, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO George D. Szigeti.

"It's been a really good year," he said in a recent interview.

Total air seats to the islands continued to increase, with several new routes announced this year from established carriers. Additionally, Southwest announced it would enter the market in 2018, stoking anticipation of greater competition and reduced fares. Since 2012 the total air seats to Hawaii has risen roughly from 10 million to 12 million in 2016, and this year is on track to eclipse that record. While other tropical destinations were impacted in some degree by natural disasters or travel safety warnings, the Aloha State enjoyed a relatively calm news year.

"The growth we saw in 2017 was unexpected," Szigeti said. "No one projected this type of growth we had, and it's really the result of everyone working together. We've had a lot more open collaboration, open partnerships and less siloed marketing efforts. We saw the industry come together in that way and it was a bright spot. Airlines are repositioning their planes to Hawaii."

Szigeti shared his thoughts on the record-setting pace, increased air traffic and what to look for in 2018.

Q: How do you think the introduction of Southwest to the market will impact Hawaii travel?

A: Competition is always good, and we welcome competition. Hawaii is really perceived right now as a very first-rate destination, good for global travelers, safe, exciting and welcoming destination. So the airlines will act accordingly by adding capacity.

Q: What kind of initiatives are you working on?

A: We redesigned our website this year and put a lot of effort into that. Now we are fine tuning the website. We made things mobile-friendly and social media is really important with the millennial traveler a big part of strategic plans.

George Szigeti
George Szigeti

We are in the middle of a big push through our contractor in New York working on East Coast travelers with a focus on culinary offerings. We are bringing over some of our culinary ambassadors, and we have some of the greatest chefs in Hawaii. We saw it as a really  good opportunity to show people on the East Coast the types of unique experiences they'll find when they come here, and culinary is a big part of that.

Q: In 2017 the demand and use of home-based lodging (e.g. Airbnb) continued to rise in Hawaii. Do you think any action needs to be taken?

A: The issue of Airbnb and other alternative lodging is not unique to Hawaii, and it is here to stay. It's a platform that is in demand, and the important thing to me is that it should be a level playing field. They need to pay their fair share of taxes, and we need regulations in place to make sure there are equal standards. For the less-regulated rentals, where do people call in emergencies? What's the plan if there is a tsunami warning? What happens when something goes wrong? There are a lot of complex, moving parts.

Q: Did you see any concern or shift in visitation due to stories about rat lungworm disease and restoration of the attack alert system  hitting news outlets on the U.S. mainland?

A: We've seen no impact. Absolutely no call-ins, and I haven't seen anything as far as surveys or research indicating anything negative.  With rat lungworm, we can definitely control it and the cases were limited. I've not heard any negative feedback on the North Korea issue and the attack alert system. The truth is North Korean missiles can reach the U.S. mainland as well. People don't think of Hawaii as a target.

Q: How is HTA's move to market more to millennial travelers progressing?

A: Hawaii is on the target list for millennial travelers, and I think with our increased investment with technology, like the things we've done with virtual reality, we have seen more interest online. The millennials are looking for real Hawaiian culture and authentic experiences. They focus on experiences  hiking, ziplines  more than baby boomers do. They love the cultural aspects of coming to Hawaii, the diversified, melting pot culture that is embedded in everything we do.

Hawaii is a multigenerational destination that offers a combination of things, diversity of activities for all ages and interests, and you just can't get that in most places. It difficult to emulate what Hawaii has to offer.

Q: While more national and foreign carriers are adding routes to Hawaii, Island Air, the interisland airline, closed down recently. Are you concerned about lack of inter-island competition?

A: I think we are seeing more and more direct flights from main carriers -- Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian -- going directly to the other islands besides Oahu. That offsets the neighbor island challenge somewhat. Locally, we see it as more of a resident issue rather than a visitor issue. A lot of visitors can now fly directly to Maui, Kauai or the Island of Hawaii.

Q: What do you see in your crystal ball for 2018?

A: I'm very bullish on 2018. I'm hearing positive things from stakeholders and some of the agents. Hawaii is positioned to continue positive trends. It's really about us continuing to create demand, so the airlines will furnish the access. Access is everything for us, because we are the most isolated place. You can't drive here, so we work closely with airline partners to make sure the brand is vibrant, strong and robust. We feel very good about 2018.

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