|Letter from Honolulu: Bringing Back Ancient Ways to the Islands.|
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Friday, 13th September 2013
The last time I was in Honolulu, I joined a pilot friend on a ferry flight across the Pacific back to Hong Kong where I was living at the time.
We took about three weeks on a single-engine Piper Malibu to fly across the Pacific, from the Hawaiian island through Kiribati, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Western Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Palau and Samal, ending up in Hong Kong.
It explains the soft spot I have for Honolulu, who can forget such a grand adventure – and so when the invitation came for me to facilitate an event on the island, I jumped at it. I wanted to see and feel the island again, and I wanted to see how much had changed.
Well, the first thing that’s changed is you can no longer fly direct to Honolulu from South-east Asia. In the old days, airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Thai International and Cathay Pacific used to fly direct but with the arrival of long-range aircraft, Honolulu became an unnecessary stop – and so for most of South-east Asia, Hawaii has become the “forgotten” destination.
I flew via Tokyo both ways and it’s good to see that the Japanese are still flocking to Hawaii although in much lower numbers than they used to in the 80s and 90s. You see more Koreans and Chinese these days but you still get spoken to in Japanese everywhere – so that hasn’t changed.
For this trip, I stayed in Waikiki most of the time and well, this strip hasn’t changed – everything is big, including the food portions, and everywhere is packed due to the high density of tourism here and I am told that the North Americans are returning to the islands.
In July 2013, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data, visitor arrivals totalled 757,969, a growth of 4.6% year on year. The US West Coast provided 310,710 (up 3.8%), US East Coast 177,162, up 5.3% and Canada grew 3.3% to reach 26,237. Japan dropped 2.9% to level off at 128,363 for the month. At its peak, Japan provided up to 1 million visitors a year, I was told,
Foreign investments are also increasing – the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation for instance this year bought the 780-room Grand Wailea on Maui for about US$1 million per room. Most of the investors buying hotel properties are Asian – Chinese as well as the Japanese who have returned.
Hawaii gets about eight million visitors a year – I would have thought more – but you get that impression from Waikiki because there is still limited dispersal of tourism. Most tourists stay in Waikiki and don’t leave the area because, as one taxi driver told me, “why would you? These hotels have everything you need.”
And he is right. The Hilton Hawaiian Village has doubled in size and you almost need a GPS to find your way around it. It’s like an entire housing estate with its own ecosystem. It feels like a zoo at times, and that’s just not due to the penquins and turtles living there.
Unlike Australia and New Zealand which are seeing more independent travellers from Asia, Hawaii still receives mainly groups so most of the facilities are geared for groups. When I landed for example, I couldn't find my transfer and had a hard time looking for a taxi sign while coach pick-up signs were everywhere. When I finally got a taxi, it was the hugest vehicle I'd ever seen and when I told the Korean driver, who walked like he rode horses for his spare time, where I was going, he asked, “Which tower? It is very big.”
Size matters here, so that hasn't changed.
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