Hawaii tourism aims to build on 'fantastic' 2016

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival is held every fall across three islands. This event took place at the Hawaii Convention Center.
The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival is held every fall across three islands. This event took place at the Hawaii Convention Center. Photo Credit: Dana Edmunds/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

A record-breaking year has almost drawn to a close for Hawaii's tourism industry, and the state is looking forward to even more visitors in 2017 and the continuing development of several tourism trends on the islands.

The final numbers are not yet in, but Hawaii was on track through the first 10 months of 2016 to break the annual record for visitors. Through October, arrivals were up nearly 3% and spending was 4% greater than any previous year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

With tumult in some areas of the world, and infectious disease dampening interest in other areas in 2016, Hawaii had a boon year.

"It was a fantastic year for Hawaii with very strong numbers, and even the preliminary estimates for 2017 are looking great," said Robyn Basso, senior director of travel industry partnerships at the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It is difficult to measure the impact of various events happening in the world, but in the conversations I've had with agents and suppliers, Hawaii may have gained consumers based on concerns about other destinations. I can't point to anything specific, but 2016 was a record-setting year."

In such a robust tourism market, change is always afoot, and Hawaii is building on several trends that, similar to global tourism trends in general, find visitors looking for "authentic" experiences that offer something unique to the area and bring them closer to local culture, Basso said.

First, tourists are increasingly seeking out novel adventure activities. Lava boat tours, hikes to active lava flows, glider rides and other adrenaline-pumping experiences are growing in popularity. In Maui, visitors can rappel past waterfalls down the island's eastern cliffs. In Kauai, there is a helicopter tour with a landing at Manawaiopuna Falls, otherwise known as Jurassic Falls for their appearance in the film "Jurassic Park."

Another area growing in popularity is enhanced cultural activities offered on the islands. For example instead of sleeping in, some visitors are joining sunrise gatherings where they learn Hawaiian chants and then welcome the new day with an ocean excursion in an outrigger canoe.

"Visitors want to immerse themselves in unique history," Basso said. "You can explore the Heiaus [temples] and royal palaces, participate in a lei making class or take ukulele lessons."

Finally, culinary tourism, also like other locales, is booming in Hawaii. Farm-to-table experiences, and dining that showcases the special multiethnic cuisine of Hawaii are attracting more people every year.  

Food festivals are always popular as a one-stop experience, including the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, which takes place across three Islands in the fall, Waikiki Spam Jam in spring, Kapalua Food and Wine Festival on Maui, and the Mai Tai Festival on the Island of Hawaii.

That is only the tip of the volcano when it comes to Hawaii food experiences. Heading to the North Shore of Oahu to grab a plate of garlic shrimp with rice and a slice of pineapple from the assembled food trucks is a popular experience. There are opportunities for visitors to learn how to pound poi, the traditional Hawaiian staple made by mashing the cooked stem of the taro plant. The farmers market in Hilo is a great spot to not only pick up local ingredients, but also sample the offerings from various food stands serving poke, sandwiches and other dishes. On Kauai liquor aficionados can visit the tasting room at the Koloa Rum Co. distillery. The islands also are home to lavender and vanilla farms that offer tours. O'o Farm in Maui specializes in sustainable practices and experiences. The farm produces coffee, fruits and vegetables which end up on the menus of local restaurants, and also offers tours that include a lunch prepared with all local ingredients.

Overall the trends point to visitors wanting to see more of the unique culture and offerings of Hawaii, and breaking away from cookie-cutter experiences.

"People are increasingly interested in connecting in an authentic way, more deeply and with local people," Basso said.

While there will be plenty of new things to explore on the islands for visitors, agents will also get some new tools in 2017 as well. In addition to features like the revamped agent-specific website agents.gohawaii.com, which offers customizable calendars providing the most up-to-date information and other tools, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau will roll out new initiatives in 2017. The agencies will be upgrading their interactive online workshops, offering a program to educate less experienced agents on the islands, and will host the first summit on millennial tourism at the annual HTA conference in September.


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