Maui County's visitor arrival numbers surpassed 2.3 million in 2012, according to statistics released Thursday by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The 2,340,226 visitors by air were 5.8 percent more than 2011's 2,211,413, continuing a steady yearly climb since the county hit bottom with 1.9 million visitors in 2009, which was when the islands' visitor industry felt the full brunt of the Great Recession.
Last year, Maui was more than 180,000 heads short of reaching its record annual visitor arrival figure of 2,522,043, set in 2007. The county's 2012 figure ranks as the third-highest visitor arrival mark in the last 10 years, topped only slightly by the 2,346,480 visitors who came in 2005.
Looking at tourism authority statistics dating back to 1990, Maui County routinely saw more than 2.3 million visitors annually from 1992 to 2000. The figures dipped to 2.1 million visitors yearly from 2001 to 2003, and then the county saw 2.2 million in 2004, 2.3 million in 2005, nearly 2.2 million in 2006 and then the record-breaking 2.5 million visitors in 2007.
The county's percentage in-crease in 2012 trailed the growth reported on the state's other major islands. Oahu had an 11.1 percent jump to nearly 4.9 million visitors.
The Big Island saw an 8.8 percent increase to 1.4 million visitors, and Kauai had a 7.3 percent rise to nearly 1.1 million visitors, tourism officials said.
Statewide, total visitors went up 9.2 percent to 7.8 million.
Last year, Maui County's international visitors by air grew 13.4 percent to 388,437. Lanai saw a 13.8 percent increase to 14,973, and Molokai's international tourists grew 4.2 percent to 11,859.
Maui's arrival figures have been leveling off because in the last two years the county has recovered airline seats to the islands, also known as "airlift," that had been cut back during the recession, said Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau.
"The other islands are just getting their airlift back," she said in a cellphone call from Oahu. "Ours came back a little sooner.
"We are very much back to the airlift that we had before the recession," she said.
Not all of Maui's visitors arrived by air. The number of cruise ship visitors to Maui County rose 15.9 percent to 271,926 for the year, the Tourism Authority reported.
Vencl pointed out that Maui did "very well" in terms of growth in visitor expenditures in 2012, seeing an 18.8 percent increase in tourist spending to $3.62 billion. Maui's greater visitor spending was slightly better percentagewise than the state's overall, which was up 18.7 percent to $14.3 billion.
On Maui island, daily per-person spending grew 12.4 percent to $195 last year. Per-visitor spending on Molokai rose 9.5 percent to $119, and on Lanai it went up 5 percent to $320.
Maui's strategic plan for visitors has "always been less numbers and maintaining high expenditures," she said.
Moving forward, Vencl said, those promoting visitor travel to Maui need to make sure not to have all their "eggs in one basket," without forsaking the island's bread-and-butter market of North America, particularly the West Coast.
Maui tourism officials are working to develop the promising Asia market in countries such as Korea, Taiwan and China and in Oceania, which includes Australia and New Zealand, she said. Promoters also want to entice more first-time visitors to Maui, she added.
Hawaii Tourism Authority President and Chief Executive Officer Mike McCartney called 2012 "the best year on record for Hawaii's tourism economy."
"I am proud of how our visitor industry has worked together since 2009 to make this happen," he said.
In 2009, daily visitor spending hit a low of $27 million in the state, McCartney said, while there was $930 million in state tax revenue and 133,000 visitor industry jobs.
"Today, just three years later, daily visitor spending has topped $39 million (an increase of $12 million), state tax revenue reached $1.58 billion ($650 million more), and tourism is supporting 167,000 jobs," an increase of 34,000, he said.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.