The numbers are in – and they’re up.
Nearly 30,000 people flew to Molokai between January and June 2011, compared with about 24,200 during the same period last year – a 22.6 percent increase, according to reports released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA).
Michael Drew, general manager at Hotel Molokai, said he isn’t surprised. Through July this year, business at the island’s only hotel has increased between 15 to 18 percent compared to the same period in 2010. While kama`aina visitors have held steady, mainland and international guests have accounted for the increase, he said – making it the busiest year in the history of the hotel.
“Are they spending money elsewhere [on Molokai]? I don’t know,” he said. “But they’re coming.”
For business owners dependent on tourism, Drew’s question draws mixed answers. Jonathan Socher, owner of Big Wind Kite Factory in Maunaloa, said he couldn’t believe tourist arrivals had increased so much, saying his profits are “neck and neck” with last year’s. However, Roy Horner, who offers mule rides into Kalaupapa through his company, Kalaupapa Rare Adventures LLC, said results have been “favorable” since he reopened for business in January following repairs to the trail.
A closer look at the numbers tells a similarly mixed story: Total tourist expenditures on Molokai are up for the first half of the year – from $13 million in 2010 to $14.2 million in 2011, an 8.9 percent rise. But while the money spent per person per day rose less than a percentage point to about $106, each visitor appears to be spending less overall. Per person per trip spending from January to June dropped 11.1 percent between this year and last, from $536.40 to $476.60.
HTA, which works in conjunction with the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, calculates per person spending monthly based on tourist surveys.
Darrell Labrado, an employee at Molokai Fish and Dive, said revenue for the first half of the year has increased – especially from tours and other activities. He said many customers return to the shop from years prior or hear about it through word of mouth. If other visitors are gripping their wallets tightly, he said, he suspects it’s because traveling here is “expensive enough.”
HTA spokeswoman Momi Akimseu offered similar insight, suggesting that after people slashed their travel budgets in recent years, many tourists are now glad to be vacationing at all.
“As the economy suffered in recent years, that pent up some demand,” she said, adding the recession also fostered a “life is short” attitude. “People are coming back and getting back to traveling.”
Akimseu also credits “rallying” within the tourism industry for a bump in visitors, both across the state and on Molokai. Hawaii welcomed 6,982,425 visitors statewide last year – its first increase since numbers began sliding after 2007, when 7,496,820 visited.
The addition of more direct flights to Maui has also helped tourism on Molokai, she said.
Representatives from the HTA and its sub-department, the Maui Visitor’s Bureau (MVB), say they’re working to maintain the upswing of visitors. HTA recently launched an iPhone application, called “Festivals of Hawaii,” to provide details on events throughout the islands.
And last week, as part of a statewide initiative, the Molokai Airport became the latest airport in Hawaii to greet fliers in Hawaiian. Visitors and kama`aina are met with a pre-recorded message by Molokai resident Ka`ala Fay Camara after landing.
The Hawaiian language greeting mirrors HTA’s and MVB’s goals of marketing Molokai as an authentic Hawaiian island, where tourists can come to learn true local culture. MVB recently launched a campaign targeting travel agents, writers and social media users, associating each Maui County island with a different word. Maui is “captivating,” Lanai is “embracing,” and Molokai is “enlightening.”
MVB Executive Director Terryl Vencl said the organization doesn’t plan to use the words in advertising campaigns; instead, it’s meant to serve as a behind-the-scenes jumping point for marketing brainstorms. She said MVB chose “enlightening” based on meetings with the Molokai Visitors Association (MVA) during the past year, as well as local and mainland focus groups.
“Enlightening really seemed to be a fit for the kind of visitor that Molokai wants to have,” Vencl said. “They want somebody who can appreciate what it is they have.”
Several Molokai business owners disagreed with MVB’s approach, saying they felt left out of the discussion. Some felt Maui was “assigning” a word to Molokai, and wished Molokai’s visitors association was more independent.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble understanding what Maui does for Molokai,” said Socher, of Big Wind Kite Factory, later adding, “Buzz words by their very nature are at least inadequate, if not wrong.”
However, Hotel Molokai’s Drew, who chairs MVA and sits on the board of MVB, said the word is “perfect.”
“Come with no expectation, come with an open mind, and we enlighten you why we think we’re the best and the last authentic Hawaiian island,” he said.
MVA chair Julie-Ann Bicoy was unavailable for comment last week.
Despite some local misgivings about increasing traffic to Molokai, Drew and other business owners said tourism plays a vital role to life on the island.
“For one, it keeps people employed. For two, it keeps businesses successful,” Drew said. “They’re not gonna stay, they’re just gonna come and check us out. Everybody benefits from people coming to Molokai, period.”