HONOLULU, Hawaii – Is it just me, but have you ever let the lack of a direct flight stop you from going where you want to go? I didn’t think so. But the tourism pros in Hawaii think that direct flights drive tourism. And they refuse to consider marketing anywhere that doesn’t have direct flights to Hawaii. Which eliminates much of the world.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) doesn’t let the public look at its marketing budgets, so we can only guess where they are spending their money. Their fall market briefing, however, made it pretty clear that almost all their money is spent in North America, Japan, China, South Korea, and a bit in Australia and New Zealand. These are where Hawaii’s visitors have traditionally come from or are new markets (China and Korea) whose potential is obvious. And they all have direct flights to Hawaii, though China just started. If you look at the other major sources of the world’s well-heeled tourists, such as Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, or South and Southeast Asia… well, HTA just doesn’t do business there. Direct flights appear to be the driver.
It’s a chicken and egg thing. If there are no direct flights, HTA won’t go there. But unless demand is built in those markets, there won’t be any direct flights. So let’s look at the trends in direct flights to Hawaii.
I’m using HTA data for 2011 based on scheduled airline seats as of September 2011. The total shows a 1 percent increase over 2010 to 9,284,354 seats. Remember, this is number of seats, not okoles (rear ends) in the seats. There are some profound changes within that total. For instance, direct seats from the US East Coast plummeted by more than 21 percent. I don’t think that reflects a lack of interest in Hawaii, but consolidation of flights and hubs by US domestic carriers. It will be interesting to see what impact the fall in direct flights has on visitors from the East Coast, though that may be swamped by the recession and great deals in the Caribbean.
But this article focuses on international trade, so let’s look at direct flights from foreign markets. “Other Asia,” which I think includes South Korea and China, skyrocketed 86 percent over 2010. Admittedly, that is from a fairly low base, with 2011 seats running at 286,796 – about 3 percent of Hawaii’s total direct seats. But it is still a remarkable increase. “Oceania,” mostly Australia and New Zealand, grew by nearly 26 percent to 216,785 seats. And Canada grew to 318,256 – an 11 percent increase. It’s like the recession hasn’t crossed our northern border.
Notice I haven’t mentioned Japan, that mainstay of Hawaii tourism for decades – and where more than 60 percent of HTA’s foreign marketing budget went the last time they let us know what they were doing. Seats from Japan fell by about 1 percent to 1,610,089. Conventional wisdom will tell you that is merely a knock-on from Japan’s disasters last spring, and many Japanese feel it unseemly to travel for pleasure when their countrymen are suffering. But look at it in the longer term and you can see diminishing returns for Hawaii in the Japanese market. The high watermark was 2005 when airlines provided 1,970,365 direct seats from Japan to “paradise.” That’s a drop of 18 percent. True, seats from other markets, especially the US East Coast, have also dropped. But US travelers seem to come despite a reduction in direct flights, changing planes on the West Coast and confounding the assumption that direct flights are necessary. But where are the Japanese going to change planes? The Japan reduction represents a real loss in potential customers.