Hawaii Tourism Grows as Bad Weather Hits Elsewhere

HONOLULU — One recent afternoon, as the temperature in their native Nashville dipped to a slim 7 degrees, Blythe Grant and Jordan Tlumak walked along the beach at Waikiki with beers in hand and smiles on their faces.

“We just left three inches of snow in Nashville,” said Mr. Grant, 26 and buff. “I was pretty pumped to get on the plane.” Mr. Tlumak, his friend, nodded. “Nashville just doesn’t know how to handle that.”

Mr. Grant and Mr. Tlumak are not the only mainlanders to be gloating about their good luck. Hawaiian tourism officials, hotel operators and travel agents — battered by several years of slumping sales — have recently seen a marked increase in arrivals to the islands. And while there are various theories as to why — including favorable currency exchange rates attracting foreign visitors, and Obama on the beach — what most people can agree on is that the rotten weather in much of the rest of the country, including a series of brutal snowstorms in the Midwest and on the East Coast, has been good news in Hawaii.

“We talk to these people every day, and they’re miserable,” said Amy Terada, the vice president of marketing for Pleasant Holidays, a tour operator in Westlake Village, Calif. “They’re saying, ‘Just get me out of here.’ ”

According to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, domestic air passenger arrivals to the islands jumped more than 10 percent in January compared with the year before. Those numbers were even more striking the week starting Jan. 24, when an epic blizzard prepared to bear down on the Midwest and arrivals jumped 15.6 percent compared with the same period in 2010.

And while bad weather has always meant good sales in warm-weather climes, this year’s uptick was sorely needed in Hawaii. The state’s tourism trade has been battered by the recession, the discontinuation of flights by two beleaguered airlines and a somewhat vague sense that luxury travel — for business or pleasure — was gauche in a time of national economic pain.

“There were comments coming out of Washington, saying, ‘If you’re getting bailout money, you better not be headed to Hawaii,’ ” said David P. Carey, president and chief executive of Outrigger Enterprises, which operates a chain of hotels in Hawaii.

But that guilt seems to be easing, said Jerome Agrusa, a professor of travel industry management at Hawaii Pacific University. “People are tired of feeling bad,” he said, “and have decided to enjoy life.”

David Uchiyama, the vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, a state agency, said officials had worked hard to improve air access to the state, particularly after ATA and Aloha Air — both of which flew to Honolulu — folded within days of each other in 2008. Those failures cost the state thousands of incoming passengers a week, he said, though several other airlines have increased or initiated service.

Hawaii has also been helped by security troubles in other warm destinations, like drug-ravaged Mexico, Mr. Uchiyama said, and the strength of some foreign currencies against the dollar, including the Japanese yen.

But there is no doubt that the chill in the mainland has helped, too. Jon Conching, the vice president for sales and marketing for Hilton Hawaii, which operates four properties in the state, says bad weather in big Western cities was particularly good for business, when Hawaii is only a nonstop flight away. “It helps when Denver is snowed in, and San Francisco is cold,” Mr. Conching said. “I’ve even got friends in Las Vegas complaining. But us here in Hawaii are saying, ‘Bring it on.’ ”

Paul Kocin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said that it was not clear yet if this winter would be a record-breaker but that big events, like the white-out conditions in Chicago in a recent blizzard and snow in the Deep South around Christmas, had contributed to the impression that it is a winter for the ages.

“From December through January through the beginning of February,” Mr. Kocin said, “there’s just been a lot of action.”

Hawaii, meanwhile, had highs in the 80s last weekend with sunny skies in the south and rain in the mountains. (It was, of course, warm rain.)

Despite increases in arrivals, tourism industry professionals say that Hawaii has a ways to go before it can fully recover from a precipitous drop in business that began in 2008. “We took a huge nose dive,” said Joseph Toy, president and chief executive of Hospitality Advisors, a hotel consulting firm. “And 2009 was just abysmal.” Occupancy rates have been climbing, Mr. Toy said, but nightly hotel rates are still lower than he would like.

That said, several tourism officials reeled off a spate of positive publicity for the islands, including the return of “Hawaii Five-0,” the sun-and-surf police drama CBS revived last year. Mr. Toy also cited the Pro Bowl, the National Football League’s all-star game, which scored its highest ratings in more than a decade. “We had people holding up signs saying, ‘Honolulu, 86 degrees, Pittsburgh, minus 20,’ ” Mr. Toy said.

And then there is the Obama effect. “You see him lounging, eating ice cream in a polo shirt,” said Mr. Carey, of the Outrigger chain, referring to the president’s annual vacation to his home state.

And while Mr. Carey said more and more visitors were booking late — something that rattles nerves in the hotel industry — it also lends itself to last-minute bookings by snow-battered Midwesterners.

Greg Herr, 41, and Martha Gamboa, 43, of Chicago, fit that bill. They had booked a trip to Hawaii in early January, just as the city girded for another harsh winter. While Mr. Herr, a financial analyst, had a collection of photos from the recent blizzard on his cellphone, last week he was enjoying Waikiki’s sandy beach, which was packed shoulder-to-sunburned-shoulder. He said he kept getting text messages from friends telling him how cold it was in Chicago, something Ms. Gamboa said he should ignore.

“We just wanted to get away from it all,” she said. “And after that last storm, we were like, Thank God we planned this.’ ”

Hawaii Tourism Grows as Bad Weather Hits Elsewhere – NYTimes.com

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