WAIKAPU - Maui County is still climbing out of the pit created when the housing bubble burst in late 2007, economist Carl Bonham told about 130 people gathered Thursday to hear his economic update during a Maui Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Nationally, there remains a lot of economic uncertainty and "scary stuff" to worry about, but Bonham, the executive director of the University of Hawaii's Economic Research Organization, still found some mild optimism to report.
Overall, he predicted 2 percent job growth for Maui County this year, and 2.5 to 3 percent in income growth.
"It's not boom years, but it's pretty good," he told chamber members at the Kamehameha Golf Club.
Bonham said that when a nation or region goes through a financial crisis on the order of the Great Recession, "it simply takes a long time to recover."
Nationally, tax cuts are set to expire and pending federal budget cuts would be huge and across the board, he said. Those are a couple of the "scary" things. Others include energy prices, which affect airline fares to the islands, and ongoing economic uncertainty in Europe, he said.
On the bright side, Maui led the state with 2 percent job growth in 2011, adding 1,300 to 1,400 jobs, he said. Most of those jobs are in tourism and food services and among professionals. However, at the current rate of job growth on Maui, it would take five to six years to return to pre-recession employment levels, he said.
Twenty-five percent of job losses were in construction, he added.
On a healthy note for tourism, airfares were kept fairly low last year because airlines, including Hawaiian Airlines, were reaching out to new markets and offering discounted fares, Bonham said.
Before the recession hit, Maui County was getting about 200,000 visitors per month, he said. Now, visitor arrivals are running 10 to 11 percent below the peak.
The lingering pain of the poor housing market in California - Maui's main tourism market - has meant that people there aren't using their homes as ATMs to splurge on a Hawaiian vacation, he said.
Recent visitor numbers showed a "pause" in the tourism recovery last spring and summer when gas prices and airfares went up and visitor arrivals numbers sputtered, he said. Still, average room rates went up and visitor spending increased, he pointed out.
Now, visitor spending is back up where it was before the economic crisis, Bonham said.
He predicted a 4 percent growth in visitor arrivals for Maui this year.
"I'm beginning to feel a little more optimistic," he said.
One visitor market growth area has been Canada, where visitor numbers have increased in the low double digits, he pointed out.
So, "if you see a Canadian, hug 'em," he said.
Chamber President Pamela Tumpap said she took "tempered excitement" from Bonham's remarks.
While she said she was pleased to hear about positive growth of 2 to 3 percent, the slow economic recovery is "still something many businesses are very challenged with."
"We're still down, and we've got a ways to go," she said.
Tumpap said island businesses need to be cautious, "being strategic" and "planning ahead as we move forward."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.