In a very mixed message last week, which left us confused, Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) said that June visitor arrivals were good, at 889 thousand. More troubling, however, was a dive into the numbers, with data regarding visitor spending and the agency saying, “We are pleased to see Hawaii’s visitor industry continuing its recovery trajectory with total visitor spending at $2 billion in June 2023, up 22.7% from June 2019, while visitor arrivals continued to trail slightly.
In June, 6% percent fewer visitors spent 23% more. Can that even be right?
BOH: We’re left wondering how vacation spending in June could only have risen in cost by this much compared with pre-Covid 2019. By our own observations, and your hundreds if not thousands of comments, Hawaii vacation costs have increased more along the lines of 2x to 3x. We find it virtually impossible to stay in Hawaii at reasonable rates for example. The Residence Inn at Kapolei (Oahu) wanted nearly $700 a night (including parking, fees, and taxes). And it remains impossible to stay for much under $400 per night in Honolulu (including taxes and fees), and we are talking far from luxury! And what car rental is just 23% more for that matter. The only possible Hawaii vacation cost that hasn’t go up by far more than 23% is airfare from specific west coast cities where Hawaiian and Southwest continue to battle.
Yet the state reports that the $2 billion in June visitor spending represents an increase of 23% compared with 2019’s $1.6 billion. In alignment with Hawaii’s desire to reduce over-tourism and achieve regenerative travel, June data also reflects that Hawaii had just over 6% fewer visitors compared with the same month of 2019 (the year before COVID).
The state said that average vacation length in June was 9.0 days, which is actually up 3% compared with 2019. So it apparently isn’t shorter vacations that are creating a discrepancy between visitor spend increase reported by the state the the cost increases visitors are actually experiencing.
The perennially troubled and perhaps still to be hachetted HTA said, “Even with these higher-spending visitors, we must continue our efforts in destination management to ensure the balance of economic benefits with environmental and community well-being… Visitor spending directly drives economic stability for our islands – that’s why HTA, our island destination managers, our Global Marketing Team, and industry and community partners urge travelers to support the local economy to build a regenerative tourism future that can sustain our state for decades to come.”
Fewer returning visitors is Hawaii’s troubling fact.
The percentage of west coast visitors, the most important to Hawaii, is falling. Over the next five years, fewer are planning to return. In the lowest number of planned returns seen in many years, 81% say we’ll likely see them again. But we question whether that’s even correct and suspect that the number that actually return will be far fewer. Those planning return visits from the eastern US and Canada are even lower.
Industry observer see these trends developing.
Our Beat of Hawaii editors’ friend Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, confirmed that both July and August appeared to be lackluster vs. traditional summer performance, seeing what he called a “fairly slow pickup” in this key vacation period. Gibson also said the lack of return visitors is concerning, calling them “The best guests for Hawaii.” We concur with his assessment. Jerry further suggested that Hawaii “concentrate on repeat guests.”
Visitors remain slow to plan future Hawaii vacations.
The forward booking pace for Hawaii vacations is at a crawl. That started declining noticeably as far back as the 2022 holidays. Visitors are moving in two directions. First is seeking more exotic vacations that were unachievable during Covid, and Europe in particular. Second is Hawaii visitors waiting until the last minute to pull the trigger in a highly competitive and expensive environment. Thus it has also become hard for the industry, including airlines, car rentals, and hotels, to plan.
How Will Hawaii’s summer end up – expansion or contraction?
Hopes that travel would recover this summer don’t appear to be materializing with the help of last-minute bookings. As we said before, “Word on the street in Hawaii is that advance bookings for traditionally stellar July are currently off by up to one-third.” We’ll have results on that soon after the month draws to a close.
Where are travel costs rising faster now? Hawaii or Europe.
Although the cost of Hawaii vacations eclipsed those of European vacations in the past year, yet another shift is in the works. Beat of Hawaii editors, heading to Europe to see the situation there vs. Hawaii firsthand, are witnessing soaring costs that appear to potentially exceed those in Hawaii.
Hawaii marketing’s HVCB said, “A recent trend toward travelers booking rental cars and hotel rooms before airlines also has made it harder for airlines to forecast traveler demand.” State tourism (DEBDT) also mentioned that we should expect “softening in the U.S. West and U.S. East.” That is in process. With prices of Hawaii vacations up dramatically in the past couple of years, visitors were left reeling.
What should Hawaii visitors do in this unusual environment?
All indications are that visitors should continue to remain resolute, waiting to leverage last-minute bookings whenever possible. For example, shopping for flights later this summer and fall between Hawaii and the most competitive west coast cities, we find that prices are dropping and likely will do so even more as the classic summer in Hawaii period draws to a close in the next two weeks.