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Some Strategic Tips to Jump-Start Japanese Tourists to Maui

October 30, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

During our transition to Maui my spouse C. and I encountered very few Japanese tourists on Maui. I spotted one honeymoon couple -- like an almost-extinct Maui parrottbill bird -- along Lahaina’s Front Street, and we were startled to overhear Japanese in Kihei, after weeks of hearing no Japanese conversations. On a recent hop to Oahu, we felt surrounded by Japanese in Waikiki – even during the “slow” month of October; usually August has a “numbers bump” of Japanese families with children on school vacation. We felt that the collective “self-restraint” of enjoying oneself on vacations (jishuku, in Japanese) after the tragedy of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami had eased, and Japanese were eager to spend time abroad.

In the rush to attract Chinese, South Korean, and other Asian tourists, Maui government and hotel/hospitality leaders may have forgotten that Japanese visitors still have huge market potential for Maui’s tourism industry. The following factors still are true: 1. No-Hassle Tourism Visas, 2. High Yen Rate Vis-à-vis the U.S. Dollar and 3. Relatively Speaking, Familiarity with International Travel. Yet, without many direct flights, Maui represents an “additional” leg in travel time and cost, compared to the ease of jetting into Honolulu International Airport and taking a taxi a Waikiki hotel. Also, Maui (and Neighbor Islands in general, except perhaps the self-contained mega-resorts on the South Kohala coast on the Big Island) requires a rental car (80% of all Maui visitors pick up a rental car) to travel to a hotel and then visit attractions in other parts of Maui – this requires a higher level of English, map skills and more planning. Finally, Maui – for many Japanese visitors – lacks the boutiques and Japanese-speaking sales staff, the ramen noodle and sushi restaurants of bustling Waikiki – and Waikiki is where the $300+ per-day spending per Japanese visitor is handed over, not at the Shops at Wailea or Front Street restaurants.

In simple terms, 50,000 or fewer Japanese tourists more per year can add to the Maui economy in revenues as more than 100,000 West Coast/Canadian visitors.* And grocery bag-toting Mauians are conscious of wear-and-tear on roads (ever drive on North Kihei Road recently?), beautiful beaches, and pristine hiking trails.

My small suggestions for government and tourism/business development agencies, focusing on “niche” groups – using the Internet -- over general Maui tourist promotion are as follows:

- Link with Japanese hula halau schools and Hawaiian music fan clubs. Work with agencies to sell packages around festivals – like the October Maui Ukulele Festival or a fans’ night with George Kahumoku at his weekly Napili venue, signings and a discussion afterwards.

- Link with Japanese “foodie”/gourmet fine dining groups. Develop “Foodie” tours, like Top Chef Fusion dinners on three consecutive nights, one in Kapalua, Lanai, and Wailea, respectively (have competitions with Japanese chefs and videotape them, post on a new Japanese-language Maui Internet channel). Or market a “package” for Japanese classmate reunions or company outings at a Wailea or Kapalua beach house, and have a chef do a “sustainable” group dinner with all Maui ingredients.

- Link Japanese co-op associations (urban dwellers who buy organic foods, very sensitive to chemicals and radioactivity concerns) to Up-Country farms for eco-agri-tourism tours on sustainable agriculture, with seminars. This can lead to Japanese investment in farming, and launch new Japanese vegetables, like small tasty cucumbers, daikon, eggplants/nasu, wasabi/Japanese horse radish and Chinese cabbage/hakusai to export to Japan – creating new jobs.

- Promote easy-to-use car rentals via Web: post Youtube videos on arrivals and Japanese-language voice-command car navigation equipment (co-develop products with voice-recognition firms and Ipad/S-pad Tablet manufacturers -- distribute Tablets to visitors with 4G/WiFi easy connectivity to travel and map sites).

- Arrange for top Japanese travel bloggers (especially young women) to write on Maui trips. Develop “Maui Friends” community sites on Mixi (Japanese “Facebook”). Target travel, hotel, restaurant ads via SNS on Mixi, Google, Yahoo! Leverage Japanese residents on Maui blogs – for local insights written in Japanese -- to Maui’s natural attractions for families for health and wellness.

Trying to compete on price or ease-of-travel with Singapore or Phuket or Bali or even Hainan (Mainland China) is challenging. What is required are rifle-shot marketing programs – well executed – that will result in dollars to local hotels, condos, car rental firms, restaurants, shops, real estate brokers, and travel agents -- and many new jobs. And happy, memorable experiences for visitors to Maui.

*Statistically, Chinese tourists are now spending nearly $370 per day; there are other issues in increasing their numbers to Hawaii.


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