The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s goal for 2012 was to welcome a record high 7.8 million visitors, and all indications point the state reaching, or even surpassing the mark.
"We need to continue the momentum," said HTA president and CEO Mike McCartney. "Tourism brings in $39 million a day, every day to the people of Hawaii, and it provides 166,000 jobs."
Final visitor arrival numbers for 2012 are due the week of Jan. 21, but at the end of November, 7.2 million visitors had arrived in Hawaii. In December of 2011, the state welcomed 683,293 tourists.
The previous high-mark for state’s primary industry was set in 2006, when nearly 7.7 million visitors came to the islands. However, with more tourism, also comes more stress on state and county infrastructure.
The situation got so bad on the Windward side of Oahu last year, that the Honolulu City Council passed a bill banning nearly all commercial activity at Kailua and Kalama beach parks.
"I would hate to just deter tourists from going to certain beaches, but I think we also need to be mindful of the residents who live there, and making sure that it's their beach too," said Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
In Waikiki, public restrooms owned and operated by the city are in the process of being renovated. But keeping the facilities clean and in working order is a constant challenge. Caldwell is hoping to team up with the hotel industry to offset the cost for bathroom attendants at Kuhio Beach and Kapiolani Park, two of the more popular stretches along Kalakaua Avenue.
"I think if the visitor industry could pick-up a share of the cost of this, we would have a solution and not have to close bathrooms and say they're locked out to everybody," the mayor told KITV4 News.
Caldwell also plans to lobby the state legislature to increase Honolulu’s take of the hotel room tax, or transient accommodations tax, which is currently capped at $41 million. Hawaii, Kauai and Maui counties get a lesser share of the TAT, but face the same issues as Honolulu.
"I mean the counties provide all of the services that our tourists depend on (and) rely on, and if they're not provided, the industry would collapse," said Caldwell.
The booming visitor industry is being sparked by a relatively weak dollar, a near all-time high of 10.1 million air seats, and an HTA marketing campaign that targets areas were economies are strong. In the first 11 months of 2012, visitors spent $12.9 billion in Hawaii, an increase of 19.2 percent. The top visitor markets for the Aloha State continue to be the U.S. West and East, and Japan.
And in another encouraging sign for tourism officials, about 60 percent of visitors who came to Hawaii in 2012 were return customers, a sign that tourists continue to view the destination as unique, enticing and safe.
"That really says that we're successful in delivering the experience, because you can make all of the promises you want in the marketing materials, but when the guest arrives, you really have to deliver the aloha," explains Barry Wallace, executive vice president, hospitality services, of Outrigger Enterprises Group, which owns 32 properties in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Hawaii’s cruise ship industry has already broken highs for overall passengers set in 2007 (130,999) and 2011 (124,456). Through the first 11 months of 2012, the number of passengers taking Hawaii cruises stood at 152,076, an increase of 45.3 percent for the same period a year earlier.
Although the high number of tourists arriving on Oahu has city and state officials concerned about the impact to services and infrastructure, McCartney believes the industry can continue to grow by deflecting some of the traffic to the neighbor islands.
"As we go into the future, what we're talking about is greater distribution to the neighbor islands," said the HTA chief. That's very, very critical to Hawaii's future strategically. "We need to work on opening Kona (Airport) as a continued port of entry for international arrivals to compliment Honolulu."