In the post 9-11, post is-my-job-next?, post family-really-is-important, post the-economy-is-lousy-but-we-still-should-take-a-vacation era, the priorities have changed, and they...

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In the post 9-11, post is-my-job-next?, post family-really-is-important, post the-economy-is-lousy-but-we-still-should-take-a-vacation era, the priorities have changed, and they affect Hawaii tourism.

We here in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton area affect Hawaii tourism.

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We’re No. 3 in U.S. tourists going the islands, after Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s about 200,000 of us annually who eventually end up buying suntan lotion at one of the ABC convenience stores that seem to be at every corner.

How has tourism changed? At the tourism headquarters for the rural island of Molokai, they’re pretty happy with their 8.7 percent. That’d be the percent increase in 2003 of tourists through July of this year, in comparison with last year.

Meanwhile, Oahu, with its reputation for crowded Waikiki beaches and its blocks of tourist shops, is hurting. In that same period, the number of tourists was down 6.7 percent.

“After 9-11, people are looking for someplace safe, quiet, laid back. That’s Molokai. It’s Hawaii the way it was 40 years ago. We don’t have a stoplight in the whole island. It’s safe, with lots of wide-open spaces. We have one road that goes down the middle of the island,” said Sandy Bedow, director of the Molokai Visitors Association.

Honolulu making changes

Of course, the 100,000 tourists who went to Molokai pale in comparison with the 4.3 million who went through Honolulu (accounting for 67 percent of all visitors). Which is why Waikiki is sprucing itself to attract those tourists who these days fly straight to Maui, which also has had an increase in tourists over last year.

“We’ve been putting in different kinds of walkway paths. Instead of a cement sidewalk, we have little stones. It’s more architecturally appealing,” said Marsha Wienert, the state’s tourism liaison. “We have flowers hanging from all the lightpoles, and added fountains and grassy areas.”

Even sand will be brought in to rebuild one of the Waikiki beaches, said Wienert.

Still, there are some things that no amount of sand can change.

Besides 9-11, there was in 2001 the bankruptcy of Canada 3000, an airline whose charters brought regular planeloads of tourists to Hawaii. That same year American Classic Voyages declared bankruptcy. It had operated American Hawaii Cruises, which took tourists around the islands on a weekly basis.

The cruise-ship business has made a bit of a comeback, though. After a deft assist from Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Congress passed a bill this year granting an exemption to Norwegian Cruise Line in the Passenger Vessel Services Act. The act says that only U.S.-flagged ships — those made in America — can sail between domestic ports without having first to stop at a foreign port. With the exemption, by next year, Norwegian Cruise Line will have four vessels serving the Hawaii inter-islands, expecting to carry almost 200,000 passengers.

In addition, another cruise line, Holland America, does eight sailings a year between San Diego and Hawaii, carrying some 10,000 passengers. And 45 foreign ships have visited the islands, an 18 percent increase over last year.

Now, if only Japanese tourists would rediscover Hawaii.

Fewer Japanese coming

It was the Japanese who stayed home or traveled to closer destinations that pummeled Waikiki tourism. In the heyday of the Japanese economy in the early 1990s, some 1.7 million Japanese tourists landed in Honolulu. Last year it was 1.5 million.

A difference of 200,000 might not seem like that much. But, according to Eugene Tian, head of the state’s tourism research branch, each 100,000 visitors mean $155 million to the economy.

The Japanese tourists meant so much to Waikiki because, as opposed to mainland U.S. tourists who prefer hanging out on the beach or hiking to a waterfall, the Japanese consider shopping an integral part of their trip.

“They’re big spenders. We had a big increase in the 1990s of upscale designer shops and specialty retailers. Everybody wanted to court the Japanese. But with Japanese travel sinking, those businesses are having a hard time,” said Byron Gangnes, a University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization economist.

A dramatic downturn in the Japanese economy didn’t help, either, and there were still the aftereffects of 9-11, the Iraq war and the scariness of potential terrorists. Then came the SARS scare.

This summer, a survey done by the Japan Tourism Marketing Association found one-fifth of those interviewed saying their friends and family discouraged them from traveling abroad. And 12 percent of those surveyed said their employers prohibited all overseas travel, even leisure.

West Coast tourists, however, always have been reliable. Slowly but surely we’re returning to those condos and hotel rooms — a total of 6.45 million visitors last year, 6.47 million expected in 2003.