No need to fret for the state of Hawaii tourism anymore.
Visitor numbers to the Aloha State dropped dramatically during the recession, and the state's tourism industry suffered another blow when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year stifled the flow of big-spending Japanese vacationers to the islands.
But tourism in Hawaii is rebounding fast, with the state welcoming nearly 7.3 million visitors in 2011. Although that is still short of the state's record year in 2006, officials expect continued growth this year.
Tourism statistics released Monday showed that the state's visitor count last year was up almost 4% over 2010. Better yet, vacationers spent $12.58 billion in 2011, a 15.6% increase over 2010 and the second-highest total in state history.
"We've seen a healthy demand for Hawaii globally," said Mike McCartney, president of the state-run Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Hawaii's tourism officials have helped their cause by promoting the islands to countries with surging economies, whose strong currency buys more in the U.S. As a result, Hawaii in 2011 drew 32% more tourists from Australia, nearly 30% more from China and 7% more visitors from Brazil compared with the year before, according to tourism officials.
"We moved toward a global marketing strategy," McCartney said. "We took our core and we took off on it."
Hawaii visitor numbers peaked in 2006 at almost 7.7 million. During the economic meltdown, tourists cut back on spending and visitor numbers to Hawaii plunged nearly 15% from 2007 to 2009, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. But things turned around as Hawaii's tourism numbers grew each year after that.
The western United States remains the greatest source of Hawaii's visitors, accounting for more than 35% of tourists, while the eastern U.S. generates 26% of the state's visitors. Japanese tourists made up about 17% of visitors last year, down from 18% in 2010. Canadian visitors are the next biggest group, representing about 7% of Hawaii's tourists, according to the tourism authority.
Many of those visitors are opening their wallets wide. The average visitor spent $1,727 per visit in 2011, up from $1,550 the year before, according to the authority.
To help draw new visitors, Hawaii's tourism authority spent about $6 million in 2011 to help airlines research and promote the most profitable routes to Hawaii. That is an increase from the $5 million the agency spent on airline routes in 2010.
Hawaiian Airlines, the largest carrier to the state, recently announced a partnership with JetBlue Airways to fly out of JetBlue's gates at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The move will give East Coast tourists direct flights to Hawaii starting in June.
The airline also increased flights in December from Sydney, Australia, to Honolulu from five flights a week to daily service. Hawaiian Airlines also plans to increase its direct flights from Seoul to Honolulu from four times a week to daily, starting in July.
Hawaiian Airlines executives say they have worked with Hawaii's tourism officials to build and promote new routes. But they have always been confident that Hawaii's tourism industry would remain strong, regardless of short-term slumps.
In 2008, when visitor numbers to Hawaii began to drop, Hawaiian Airlines committed to spending $8 billion on new planes to meet future tourism demand to the island.
The airline plans in April to replace its Boeing 767-300 planes that fly from Osaka, Japan, to Honolulu with new Airbus A330 jets that are equipped with 30 more seats per aircraft. The move will add nearly 11,000 seats annually on the route.
"We work on long-term trends," said Mark Dunkerley, Hawaiian Airlines' president and chief executive. "We try to look forward over a decade or two."
Thanks to the resurgence of visitors, occupancy levels at Hawaiian hotels surged from a low of 67% in March 2009 to 77% during the week that ended Jan. 7, according to Smith Travel Research. Average room rates during that period rose from $182 in 2009 to $238 in January.
"2011 was a better year than the prior two years," said Chris Tatum, vice president for Marriott International Inc., which operates nine hotels in Hawaii.
He noted that Hawaii has welcomed many Korean tourists since the U.S. waived the need for South Koreans to obtain a visa to visit.
"The efforts we've been having in promoting Hawaii in Korea have had an impact, and when you throw in the visa waiver program and the improving economy, we are excited about the potential from Korea," Tatum said.
Walt Disney Co. is also benefiting from the resurgence in tourism by opening in August the Aulani Disney Resort and Spa, an $800-million development on 21 acres in Oahu. The resort offers 300 hotel rooms and 350 time-share units that include amenities such as kitchens and living rooms. The resort expects to open an additional 400 time-share units by 2013.
Disney executives declined to disclose occupancy rates at the resort but said it had a "very busy holiday season."
"We are really happy with the number of visitors we have been seeing," spokeswoman Nikki Moreno said.
Tourists who have visited Hawaii recently said they have noticed an unusually high number of international tourists and exceptional service from waiters, bellhops and other workers, who seem grateful to welcome visitors back to the islands.
Stephanie LaPorte, a Monrovia resident who visited Hawaii with her family in June, said the beaches were packed but she had no trouble getting through the crowds at the airport.
"I'd go back every year if I could," she said. "It's always beautiful there."
Stephan Pollack, a public relations executive who visited Honolulu in October for business, said he shared his hotel with lots of foreign visitors during his latest visit.
"I noticed Japanese, Canadians and Italians," he said. "In all, it was a great trip."