With numbers in decline, tour operators try to lure Japanese tourists back

July 28, 2013


With torchlights glittering and a pleasant breeze blowing in off the ocean, models adorned in the latest resort fashions strutted their stuff at an outdoor fashion show taking place on a small corner of Honolulu's Waikiki Beach.

A large stage had been set up in the garden of the Royal Hawaiian, a luxury hotel situated right next to Hawaii's famed sands.

The show, which continued for about two and a half hours on May 31, had a slightly unusual twist; most of the models, including the well-known Jessica Michibata, were from Japan. The majority of the over 1,000-strong audience was also made up of women in their 20s and 30s from Japan who had come to Hawaii on a holiday tour. Additionally, the show's MC, as well as the representative from Hawaii's Tourism Authority who welcomed the crowd, spoke in Japanese.

"I heard I would be able to see a fashion show, so I used some of my paid vacation days (to make this trip)," said a 30-year-old female office worker from Tottori Prefecture who attended. "It's my first time to Hawaii, but I feel relaxed because Japanese is also spoken."

JTB Corp., Japan's largest travel agency, produced the tour, which included tickets to the fashion show, offering departures from various points in Japan for stays from five to seven days for between 100,000 and 200,000 yen ($1,007 to $2,015). In addition to the fashion show, activities included festivities offering a taste of famous Hawaiian specialties such as macadamia nut pancakes, a talk show featuring a famous model, and the chance to attend the wedding of a Japanese couple in which a well-known TV personality would participate.

The busiest times in Hawaii for Japanese tourists are during the New Year's celebrations and Japanese summer holidays. The offseason is from the end of Golden Week (a period of consecutive public holidays) at the beginning of May to the end of June. The tour, targeting "young women who had never been to Hawaii," had been arranged for this period. In fact it was one of several publicity stunts designed to lure Japanese tourists, whose numbers have been declining, back to Hawaii.

After the end of World War II, the number of Japanese visiting Hawaii grew every year until reaching a peak of 2.22 million visitors in 1997. The number started to decline the following year, totaling 1.17 million, about half, in 2009. Though the number of Japanese traveling abroad has maxed out overall, the decline in visitors to Hawaii has been particularly severe. Benefiting from a strong yen, the number rebounded to 1.45 million last year; even so, that is still only two-thirds of its former peak.

Eric Takahata, the managing director for Hawaii Tourism Japan (HTJ), said, "Hawaii's popularity as a tourist destination for Japanese is said to have peaked in the latter part of the 1990s. It made Hawaii so crowded with Japanese that it eventually made tourists stay away from the islands."

The Japanese who are fond of Hawaii continue to visit; however, the islands have lost some of their shine for those who have yet to visit, and they are starting to look to other destinations. As a result, it is said repeat visitors now account for 60 percent of Japanese tourists visiting Hawaii.

Repeat visitors continue to convey the "charms of Hawaii," such as the laid-back lifestyle and its easily accessible natural diversity, to the rest of Japan. However, if first-time visitors continue to decline, so will the total number of Japanese visitors.

Hawaiian tourism overall, including visitors from the U.S. mainland, is not in decline. According to statistics from 2011, the average Japanese tourist spent $289 a day, significantly more than the average American, who only spent $158. Chinese tourists spent an average of $372 a day, but only reached 80,000 visitors in total. If the number of Japanese visitors decreases, it will deal a blow to Hawaiian tourism. In 1989, tourism accounted for more than 30 percent of Hawaii's GDP; by 2009, however, it was only making up 15 percent. Described as the "best tourists," Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is troubled over how to boost the number of Japanese tourists again.

On Oct. 18 of last year, more than 50 people working in the travel industry from Hawaii and Japan, including representatives of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, gathered at the Hawaiian Convention Center in Honolulu. It was the fourth meeting of the Japan Hawaii Tourism Council (JHTC), which was launched in 2008 as a venue for thinking up measures to awaken latent tourism demand for the islands.

At the end of the one-day discussions, both sides signed a memorandum stating their goal was to return Japanese visitor numbers to 2 million by 2016. If this can be accomplished, the tourism bureau projects that annual spending by Japanese tourists would reach $4 billion, from which the state could collect $440 million in tax revenues.

To reach its goal, the Hawaiian side will focus on providing seminars for travel operators while the Japanese side will embark on enhancing tour packages. Aspects being emphasized include first-time visitors and off-season periods, as well as increasing visitors to islands other than Oahu. The "fashion show tour" was a product of this initiative.

Steady efforts toward the achieving the goal continue to be implemented.

This year, the Hawaii Prince Hotel installed toilets that have built-in warm water bidets in its guest rooms. According to manager Toshie Nakabayashi, "This was the most commonly requested need of Japanese customers. The new toilets are very popular."

In the winter of 2011, the Hilton Hawaiian Village renovated its 28th floor and also installed toilets with warm water bidets. This was a demand made by H.I.S., a Tokyo-based travel agency, which contracted to rent the entire floor on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, JTB, looking to increase the number of Japanese tourists who visit Maui, became the title sponsor for a marathon on the island and began offering JTB Maui Marathon Tours.

The state of Hawaii and the travel industry have also implemented various lobbying efforts, which has resulted in new direct flights between Hawaii and Fukuoka, Sapporo and Sendai. Reservations for tour packages to Hawaii this summer appear to be doing well.


The relationship between Hawaii and Japan runs deep. The first major connection between the two revolved around immigrants from Japan. In 1868, 30 years before Hawaii was annexed to the United States, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the territory and continued to do so until 1924, when the United States' new immigration act barred their entry. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawaii during that period, including 29,000 for whom the Japanese government acted as a go-between. Many of the immigrants were engaged in hard and thankless work in the sugar cane fields.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet moored at Oahu’s Pearl Harbor, ushering in the start of the Pacific War. While Japan was engaged in war with the United States, Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii had to endure a difficult existence.

The back and forth between Hawaii and Japan, interrupted for a period both during and after the war, was eventually revived with Hawaii becoming a tourist paradise. According to researchers, in 1964, the year Japanese citizens were allowed to freely travel overseas, 35,000 Japanese tourists descended upon Hawaii, accounting for an estimated 30 percent of foreign travelers to the islands that year. Packaged tours becoming a staple during Japan’s high growth period, and the number of Japanese visitors to Hawaii increased annually up to 1997.

In Hawaii, Japanese-Americans such as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who fought for the U.S. Army during World War II and earned the Medal of Honor, are active in every field and have established a presence among local communities. One of the things that attracted Japanese tourists to Hawaii after the war was said to be the fact that there were many Japanese-Americans living on the islands who could speak Japanese. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are about 185,000 Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii, or 13.6 percent of the state's population. Of all the Japanese-Americans living in the United States, 16.9 percent of them live in Hawaii.


In 2012, a total of 7.84 million visitors flew into Hawaii. Of those, 4.89 million, or more than 60 percent, were from the U.S. mainland. They were followed by the Japanese who accounted for a little less than 20 percent of the total at 1.45 million visitors. Rounding out the top three were Canadians, comprising roughly 500,000 visitors. These three countries account for just under 90 percent of all tourists visiting Hawaii. Visitors from the U.S. mainland dropped during the global financial crisis spanning 2008 and 2009, but their numbers have since recovered. Visitors from Canada are generally on the rise.

There are few people visiting the islands outside of those from the United States, Japan and Canada. In 2012, Australia sent 250,000 visitors, while tourists from South Korea numbered only 150,000. Though Chinese visitors increased by 50 percent over the previous year, they still totaled only 120,000, and Europeans accounted for a mere 130,000 tourists. Similar beach resorts in Bali, Indonesia, are seeing a dramatic increase in tourists from Australia and China. Tourists from Russia, China and South Korea are conspicuous on Phuket, an island off the southwest coast of Thailand. All locations obviously have their differences.

Of people visiting Hawaii from the U.S. mainland, those from the geographically closer West Coast, at 3.19 million, nearly double those from the East Coast, who account for 1.7 million. However, according to 2011 data compiled by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, those from the East Coast, at $181, spent more than their West Coast counterparts who only opened their wallets to the tune of $144 a day, less than half of the $289 daily average spent by Japanese tourists.

At an average of 12.6 days, Canadians stay the longest, followed by West Coast mainlanders at 10.5 and 9.6 for those from the East Coast. The Japanese, in comparison, stay for a relatively short period of just six days.

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A fashion show in Honolulu's Waikiki Beach overflows with tourists from Japan. (Noriko Akiyama)

A fashion show in Honolulu's Waikiki Beach overflows with tourists from Japan. (Noriko Akiyama)

  • A fashion show in Honolulu's Waikiki Beach overflows with tourists from Japan. (Noriko Akiyama)

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