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Maui hits new record with 2.6M visitors

About 100,000 more visitors came to Maui in 2016 than in 2015, raising the island’s total count to its highest annual mark ever — 2.6 million — according to data released Monday by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

That was 3.9 percent more visitors than 2015, which was a record-setting year as well.

Visitors to Maui spent $4.5 billion in 2016, which also was a record, topping the previous total of $4.1 billion set in 2015 by 8.4 percent, according to the authority.

“It is unbelievable,” Sherry Duong, Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau executive director, said Monday. “I honestly have to extend my appreciation to people on Maui.”

Duong explained that residents “go out of their way” to give travelers an experience that makes them want to return. Nearly 70 percent are repeat visitors, she said.

Growth in airline seats to Maui, including new direct flights by Virgin America beginning in late 2015, was a major contributor to the increase in visitors, said Duong. The report showed a 2.8 percent increase in airline seats to Kahului Airport in 2016.

Strong marketing efforts, especially in the West Coast — the island’s largest market — and the East Coast and Midwest, also helped attract more visitors, Duong said. “That is one thing we do well,” she said of marketing campaigns. “We are doing it right.”

Forecasts for the current year show continued growth, Duong said. “I would love to see another record year,” she said, noting that 2017 would be her first full year as executive director. She took over from longtime Executive Director Terryl Vencl in July.

Noting the closure of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in December, Duong said “tourism is all we have.”

“We have to maintain that momentum and keep tourism on top of line,” she said.

The island can handle more tourists hotelwise, she said, pointing to the new 200-room Residence Inn Maui Wailea, which opened in September, and the 390-room Westin Nanea Ocean Villas in Kaanapali, which is set to open April 16. There are rooms available during the slower “shoulder months” between seasons as well.

The industry may be able to accommodate growing numbers, but there are issues with infrastructure on the island. She cited the slow traffic on the pali as an example.

The record-setting 2016 on Maui was part of a statewide trend. The 8.9 million visitors who came to Hawaii were a record, as well as the $15.6 billion they spent last year. It was the fifth straight year of record growth in both categories, according to the authority.

Although Maui set a record for visitor spending in 2016, the December report showed a 2.5 percent decline compared to 2015, caused by lower daily spending (down 3.4 percent to $194 per person). Visitors spent $408.9 million in December.

For the month, arrivals were up 3.3 percent to 240,233 with growth in arrivals from the U.S. East, up 8.9 percent, and the U.S. West, up 5.2 percent. There were declines in visitors from Japan, down 5.7 percent, and Canada, down 1.2 percent.

The reopening of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai in February after eight months of renovation work helped drive an 8.5 percent increase in visitors to that island in 2016. The island hosted a total of 63,338 visitors for the year.

Visitor spending skyrocketed 111 percent to $90.6 million on Lanai.

Molokai tourism did not fare as well in 2016, with visitor arrivals down 6.8 percent to 60,367. Spending was down 2.9 percent to $32.8 million.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.