Maui County welcomed 186,895 visitors in February. That was 8.2 percent more than the previous February, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
It was still far below the last prosperous years, 2007 and 2008, but higher than the depressed years of 2009 and 2010. Since 2007, the February head counts have been: 208,926, 210,274, 165,029 and 179,927. (Before 2010, the counting was done by the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.)
Based on the rate of improving figures, it would have taken the visitor industry another two years to have gotten back to the levels before the worldwide financial crisis. But since February, there has been a disaster in Japan, which is likely to retard the expansion of the past two years.
Kihei’s Kamaole II Beach Park is packed with surf and sun seekers Tuesday morning. With limited parking, the beach draws most of its visitors from nearby vacation condos. That makes it a good place to unofficially gauge tourist numbers. Maui County counted more than 186,000 visitors in February, an 8.2 percent increase over the same month in 2010, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
In comments released along with the statistics, the tourism authority said: "We fully believe that Hawaii will be able to weather this latest tragedy. The economic growth that we have seen over the last year is an indicator of how resilient we are as a community and destination. And we have launched our HTA Economic Recovery Plan that will help us achieve our 2011 strategic plan goals and preserve the momentum of our economic recovery."
To do so, the authority has allocated $3 million to advertise in other markets. It also plans to improve air access and maintain demand from China, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority President Mike McCartney.
The tourism agency also has begun to plan for ways to stabilize its Japan business, McCartney said.
"Our first priority is to offer our support and stand in unity with the people of Japan," he said, emphasizing disaster relief fundraising efforts the agency has helped organize. "We also realize that our community is very interested in what can be done to respond to the anticipated decline in visitors from Japan and other markets due to the disaster."
The authority's efforts to stabilize its Japan market can hardly begin immediately, since Japan Air Lines has drastically - but it says temporarily - cut flights from 21 to 14 to Hawaii from Tokyo's Narita airport.
But Maui County will be only slightly affected directly. In February, fewer than 5,000 visitors to the county came from Japan.
These few are prized by the visitor industry, since they spend at an average rate of $287 per person per day (statewide), almost twice as much as the $147 spent daily by visitors from western states, where most of Maui's visitors come from.
The big impact will be felt on Oahu, where in February nearly 100,000 of the island's 349,056 visitors were from Japan.
Since the visitor industry breathes in and out together, this big reduction will be felt more or less in the Neighbor Islands. Japanese visitors who do not fly to Honolulu cannot make side trips to the Neighbor Islands.
Until the huge earthquake in northern Japan changed the outlook, the tourism authority had been looking for a state total of 7.6 million visitors in 2011, which would be a record.
In any event, through February, the whole state was enjoying the steady pullout from the deepest pits of the 2009 recession.
Statewide, visitors numbers were up 11.7 percent in February, compared with the same month in 2010.
Oahu had 11.8 percent more visitors. Kauai had 76,983, 10.1 percent more. Hawaii island had 117,009, 14 percent more.
Total visitor spending (not counting airfares) in February was $159.7 million, or 18.7 percent, higher than in February 2010, a total of $1.013 billion.
The number of visitors from Canada jumped 19.7 percent; the U.S. West climbed 10.9 percent; and Japanese visitors grew by 8.2 percent in February.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.