Is Hawaii getting serious about attracting international tourists? Hard to tell, but there are some recent good signs. It used to be that the state’s tourism marketing agency, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), would only put marketing funds into countries or regions that had direct flights to Hawaii. That’s a bit limiting since Hawaii’s beaches are located in one of the world’s most isolated archipelagos. It meant that HTA’s international marketing spend was effectively limited to Canada, Japan, a few other places in east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. That list has grown a bit, but I suspect that an overwhelming preponderance of the budget still goes to Japan. More on that below.
HTA started taking Europe seriously a long time back when European airlines began to talk about polar runs between London and Honolulu. That didn’t last, but HTA had gotten used to spending a pittance in Europe. Out of perhaps a $60 million international marketing budget, something like $100,000 would be spent in England and Germany. A little of that now leaks into Switzerland, Austria and France, but the Europe spend, I’m told, is still the same order of magnitude. Some of us pointed out over the years that Europeans are dedicated travelers who aren’t likely to let something like changing planes stop them if they want to come. But we didn’t get anywhere.
HTA enthusiastically greeted the emergence of China and South Korea as tourism markets. Major efforts went into building these markets, both of which – again – had direct flights to Honolulu. Travel from Taiwan appears to be growing due to the U.S. visa waiver program and prospects for renewed direct flights. Some of us hoped this would presage attempts to attract all those rich tourists in South East Asia or even India, but no such luck. No direct flights.
On the plus side, HTA has begun paying attention to Latin America and is putting some shekels into marketing in Mexico and a few other places. They have apparently realized that Latins might not object to changing planes, say, in Los Angeles or Houston. Still, it is hard to know how much HTA really devotes to the Latin markets.
The reason it is hard to tell is that HTA guards its budgets. HTA argues that they have to hide their budgets so that their competitors won’t know what they are up to. That sounds reasonable until you realize that everybody in the travel industry who cares can see HTA’s activity. It is clear that a majority of HTA’s foreign marketing spend is still in Japan. Growing segments go to China and South Korea. Some continues in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And there are now risible amounts spent in Europe, Taiwan, Mexico and a few other places. The industry knows that HTA has no plans for marketing to the well-to-do travelers of the Middle East, most of Latin America, South East Asia, India, Scandinavia or much of the rest of Europe. Plus, HTA’s marketing budgets were openly published up until a few years ago – and competitors didn’t seem to notice or care.
So how did we get to hiding the marketing budget? A small group of us here in Hawaii started asking pointed questions about foreign marketing strategy and why HTA was ignoring large parts of the world. We analyzed how much other markets could be worth and asked if perhaps some of HTA’s effort should be shifted to new markets. HTA had only one answer to those questions – no direct flights – and was seemingly irritated that anyone would question their supreme judgement. So HTA convinced the Hawaii state legislature to allow them to close any of their board meetings that discussed budget allocations and marketing plans, so that the rest of us could no longer be certain what they were up to.
A bit of HTA’s budget information leaked out last Friday, though not enough to get the overall picture. David Uchiyama, HTA’s vice president for brand management, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he will have an extra $1.2 – $1.3 million to spend on international markets in 2015. Plus, he has an extra $1.5 million to throw at Brand USA promotions and to spend on websites and social media. That’s all good, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the overall global spend. And amounts like these are pocket change in the world of international tourism. They will be quickly burned up. (Here’s the link to the Star-Advertiser article. Good luck with that unless you subscribe. They have a ferocious pay-wall.)
It is great news that Hawaii is paying a little more attention to the rest of the world. Just how serious it is remains a state secret.