PHOTO: George D. Szigeti (Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority)
Hawaii had a banner year in 2015 – the fourth straight record-breaking year for tourism. Altogether, more than 8 million people visited the state last year, spending more than $15 billion. To find out why and how these impressive statistics were achieved and to get an update on what’s in store for Hawaii this year, TravelPulse spoke with George D. Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Travel Pulse: How did Hawaii set these record numbers in 2015?
George Szigeti: It’s actually the fourth straight year that we’ve had a record number of visitors. Sixty percent of our visitors are repeat business. I believe that the reason we are breaking records has to do with our healthy brand. When you talk about the Hawaiian brand, it is all about the culture. We do a lot to recognize and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. That’s what sets us apart from other surf and sand destinations. We don’t have an Eiffel tower, we have the aloha spirit.
TP: Why do you think the Big Island and Kauai did not experience as big of a growth spurt as Maui and Oahu?
GS: The overall growth is based on access. Most of the access is here on Oahu, but each island has its own unique experience and we want to look to get more nonstop flights to these neighbor islands. We are going to work on building access this year.
TP: Is Dengue fever a factor for Big Island?
GS: Hawaii Island just declared a state of emergency so that they can receive additional funding to combat the Dengue fever. Officials there are really addressing the problem and getting on top of it.
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TP: What will Hawaii do this year to continue tourism growth?
GS: We have a new, aggressive, passionate and focused team. Tourism is our economic engine. We aren’t necessarily expecting a record-breaking year but we are projecting $15.9 billion in visitor spend.
Air service is the biggest factor in our growth. Right now, it is strong and growing. Virgin America recently added seven-day service to Oahu and service to Maui three days per week from San Francisco. The airline is also looking at adding service to Hawaii from Los Angeles. These added flights have opened up Silicon Valley and the millennial market, which is a good business for us.
TP: Do you expect 2016 to be another record-breaking year?
GS: It is always a goal, but we have had four straight record-breaking years. People are very happy. Our stakeholders would just be happy to have a year like last year. Our projection is for 8.8 million visitors this year.
TP: What will bring tourists to Hawaii in 2016?
GS: It’s really the experience that drives visitors to Hawaii. It’s the culture. We offer a safe, clean cultural experience.
In 2016, we will also have events that will drive tourism. We have two major events taking place here this year. The IUCN World Conservation Congress is coming to Honolulu in September. That is a huge event for us. It is the first time that the event will take place in the U.S. and there are more than 8,000 registrations already.
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This congress will showcase Hawaii as a world-class business destination. We have the opportunity to show that we can host these world-class events. That is exciting to me. It shows the world what we can do.
Our other major event is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. There is a lot of planning going into this. We are already working on events and talking to President Obama. We will have a big event to recognize our fallen heroes.
TP: It seems that there are a lot of hotel projects in the works in terms of renovations and new builds — especially in Ko Olina, is this a sign of a more stable tourism market?
GS: Yes, that is what we are seeing. All of the major national brands are revitalizing their product and there are new brands such as The Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach. There are several new projects in Ko Olina, including the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina and that is going to be a good neighbor to Disney’s Aulani. Hawaii is a place companies want to be and a place where they want to have their brand.