HONOLULU—Although Hawaii hotels mostly were spared from the earthquake-generated tsunami that crashed ashore earlier this month, hoteliers across the state are holding their collective breath, expecting inbound traffic from Japan to drastically drop off.
About 1.2 million Japanese typically visit Hawaii each year, accounting for 18% of the state’s tourism and US$2 billion in annual revenues, according to a report from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“We are seeing large group cancellations,” said Angela Vento, regional marketing and sales director for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide’s Hawaii and French Polynesia regions. “We had a major group cancel this week on 1,000 rooms a night. We have seen cancellations through June. So there are certainly some effects.”
Most cancellations have come from corporate groups, although Vento said Starwood is seeing a 20% drop in leisure travel from Japan as well.
Joe Toy, CEO of Hospitality Advisors and a Kona resident on Hawaii’s Big Island, offered an interesting perspective on the earthquake’s effect on inbound Japanese travelers to Hawaii. Toy said there are a significant amount of Japanese travelers that escaped to Hawaii to get away from the devastation back home.
“Some have decided to come here for four or five weeks,” he said. “Initially they said, ‘We want to get out.’ But now some here are starting to feel guilty about being here.”
Some Japanese are coming to Hawaii now because they are concerned about a nuclear threat, Toy said. “But then they see the news, and they think perhaps they shouldn’t be traveling in support of their people back home.”
Weekly STR data showed minimal declines in performance measures for the Oahu island market—which includes the city of Honolulu and neighborhood of Waikiki—during the week following the tsunami, with occupancy down 1.6% to 78.7%.
Toy said 80% of Japanese tourists come to Honolulu—a gateway city—even if they only stay a handful of days before traveling inter-island. Waikiki would be the most impacted, he said.
Hawaii hotel damage
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sendai, Japan—about 4,000 miles from Hawaii—led to tsunami warnings and evacuations in many areas around the islands. As the night wound down, residents and visitors scrambled to move inland and watched news coverage of massive waves engulfing Japanese cities. While sirens signaled warnings from the Hawaii Tsunami Center, Hawaiians braced for impact.
“They projected waves would hit Hawaii at 3 a.m., so my wife and son gathered photographs and left and I stuck around for a while. At 1 a.m., troops were making the rounds shutting off the area, closing the roads,” Toy said. “At 3:25 a.m., 6-foot waves hit Oahu and there were reports of damage at the harbor.”
“Then it hit Big Island sometime around 4 a.m.,” Toy continued. “At Big Island, wave height was anywhere from 6 to 12 feet.”
In Waikiki, the hotels performed what is called a vertical evacuation, moving guests and employees to the sixth floor or higher. In some cases, guests had to be relocated to neighboring hotels.
Toy said he has a minor investment in King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, where waves washed through the first floor. No rooms were touched by water; a first-floor bar and several public areas have minimal damage. A handful of first-floor stores remain closed.
In total, three hotels in Hawaii were damaged from the tsunami, most severely the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and the Kona Village Resort, each of which were forced to close for an extended period of time.
“We had some damage to the infrastructure, but it wasn’t severe,” Toy said. “The concern really is how our business is going to be impacted by incoming traffic.”
“There are a couple things we do know,” Starwood’s Vento said. “The Japanese traditionally have a 49-day grieving period. So we have to question even the appropriateness of marketing within that timeframe.”
Vento said she is anticipating at least a six-month period before the Japanese begin traveling again. The Japanese Golden Week, from 29 April to 5 May, will serve as a benchmark, she said.
Another concern for Hawaii hoteliers outside of Japan is inbound traffic from the U.S. market, which has begun to experience cancellations, Toy said.
“The concern is if there is a misconception of Hawaii being impacted by the radiation, that causes concern in the visitor’s eye,” he said. “Safety is always a main motivation in selecting a destination, and Hawaii is actually quite safe. We have to do a good job of managing the perception of Hawaii that we haven’t been impacted, and it’s highly unlikely that we will be.”
Vento also has been responding to reports of nuclear plant and radiation concerns. She saw some initial declines in booking inquiries, and Starwood has fielded many questions about the safety of traveling to Hawaii.
“Preliminary EPA monitor results for Hawaii showed minuscule levels of an isotope that is consistent with the Japanese nuclear incident, but the EPA says that it is far below any level of concern for human health,” the Hawaii Tourism Authority posted to their site Tuesday. “This is consistent with earlier statements by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that no harmful levels of radiation are expected to reach Hawaii or the mainland U.S.”
“There is no reason to be concerned, at least at this point in time,” Vento said.