Japanese tourists’ longing for Hawaii is still worth banking on

by and

Special To The Japan Times

In January, All Nippon Airways announced it would buy three A380 aircraft from French manufacturer Airbus, a move that surprised some industry people since the A380, which seats 525, is one of the biggest planes in the world and the airline trend now is for smaller vessels. ANA is keen to take advantage of the expansion of Tokyo’s Haneda airport for international flights. And in Japan, outbound flights means going to Hawaii.

ANA now carries more passengers than rival Japan Airlines, but JAL carries the most from Haneda to Hawaii — about 35 percent of the total number of Japanese passengers who go there — with ANA handling about 20 percent. The problem isn’t getting customers, since flights for all airlines between Japanese airports and Hawaii are running at 80-90 percent capacity. By using the A380, ANA can substantially increase the number of people it carries without increasing the number of flights. It already has three A380s, and in the future may have even more, since ANA Holdings owns 16.5 percent of low-cost carrier (LCC) Skymark, which, though currently going through rehabilitation with ANA’s help, ordered six A380s before it filed for bankruptcy.

Hawaii is very important, since the overall number of outbound Japanese passengers continues to decrease. Only Hawaii-bound passengers have seen a slight increase. It is without a doubt the most resilient Japanese travel destination. Last year, 1.5 million Japanese people went to Hawaii. The peak year was 1997, when 2.2 million went there. The drop in travelers has been notable, caused mainly by a generational change that saw young people turn away from travel in general, and exacerbated later by the 2007 worldwide recession sparked by the failure of Lehman Brothers and a decrease in the value of the yen.

But numbers have been gradually improving thanks mainly to repeaters, who account for 60 percent of Japanese tourists to Hawaii now, meaning they fly there twice or sometimes even three times a year. Obviously the Hawaiian Tourism Authority isn’t going to hit its target of 2 million Japanese in 2016, but it could reach that level in a few years.

Increased repeater business is the same phenomenon that has made Tokyo Disneyland one of the most successful theme parks in the world, and ANA obviously believes it represents a solid enough demographic to invest in, especially with the recent drop in oil prices that has helped bring airfares down. Also, young people aren’t necessarily interested in package tours, which still account for most travel to Hawaii. According to business writer Kotaro Toriumi, if LCCs such as Air Asia Japan start flying to Hawaii from Narita and Nagoya airports, which they plan to do starting in 2019, then round-trip fares could drop as low as ¥50,000, which means even young people could afford to go twice a year.

In addition, Japanese spend money in Hawaii — in 2014, an average of $249 a day. So as a whole, Japanese tourists almost outspend American mainland tourists, who constitute 60 percent of Hawaii’s inbound visitors. Japanese come in second with about 20 percent, but Americans only spend about $144 a day if they’re from the West Coast and $181 a day if they’re East Coasters. However, they stay in Hawaii longer, about 10.5 days per trip as opposed to six days for Japanese.

Another reason airlines, travel agents and the Hawaiian tourist industry have enough faith in the future of Japanese tourism to invest more in it is the enduring cultural significance of Hawaii in the postwar Japanese imagination. Despite Pearl Harbor, whose symbolism for Japanese people doesn’t loom as large as it does for Americans, Hawaii’s reputation as a romantic paradise predated and survived World War II, stimulated by the 1948 hit song, “Akogare no Hawaii Koro” (“The Hawaii Cruise I Long For”). At the time, only wealthy Japanese could go to Hawaii on the ship that left Yokohama and stopped off in Honolulu before continuing on to its destination, San Francisco.

It wasn’t until 1964 that the average Japanese person could travel abroad freely, and Hawaii was the only foreign land they could reasonably visit. A year before, the game show “Up Down Quiz” premiered, offering as its grand prize an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii, fortifying the aspirational appeal of the islands. At that time, a seven-night package tour of Hawaii offered by Japan Travel Bureau’s package tour service Look JTB cost ¥360,000 and the average starting monthly salary of a college graduate was only ¥20,000. Middle-class people couldn’t really afford to go until the ’70s. In 1976, the starting monthly salary of a college grad was up to ¥94,000 and the cheapest four-night Hawaii tour was ¥161,000. It wasn’t until 1994 that monthly salaries outstripped the cost of a package tour: ¥192,00 and ¥186,000, respectively.

Now practically anyone can afford it. In 2007, the average monthly salary had only increased to ¥205,000, but the price of JTB’s cheapest package tour (five nights) had plummeted to ¥79,000. And it’s remained pretty much the same since then.

Over the years, Hawaiians have taken full advantage of this “longing” by catering directly to Japanese wants and needs. A visitor can spend a week or two in Hawaii without ever having to use English or, for that matter, emerging from their Japanese comfort zone in terms of food and accoutrements.

Many Japanese celebrities own condos there, and during the New Year’s break you can see dozens of TV travel specials showing them fishing and surfing in the 50th state. In recent years, some pop artists, like boy band Arashi, have held concerts in Hawaii attended almost completely by Japanese, who charter flights and book huge blocks of hotel rooms through their fan clubs. JAL even sponsors a marathon that is mostly made up of Japanese runners. For a while it looked as if it might be canceled due to declining interest, but local authorities have successfully kept it going.

Even the Chinese tourist juggernaut that is now boosting the fortunes of the global travel industry doesn’t count for as much in Hawaii as Japanese tourists. Though the number of Chinese visitors to Hawaii has risen at a faster rate than any other nationality in recent years, and each Chinese traveler who comes spends more per person per day than any other nationality, the number is substantially smaller that the number of Japanese.

Still, the Japanese media is sensitive about the competition. Last July, in an article about outbound reservations booked so far by Japanese for “Silver Week” in September, Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that the number of Chinese tourists to Hawaii had overtaken the number of Japanese for the first time. Later, the paper printed a correction: 161,000 Chinese visited Hawaii in 2015, not 1.61 million as initially reported. Some editor had mistakenly moved the decimal point but no one had thought the inflated figure strange.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.

  • The Awakening

    RE: “It (All Nippon Airways) already has three A380s, and in the future may have even more, since ANA Holdings owns 16.5 percent of low-cost carrier (LCC) Skymark, which, though currently going through rehabilitation with ANA’s help, ordered six A380s before it filed for bankruptcy.”

    I stand to be corrected but All Nippon Airways (ANA), don’t currently have any Mighty A380s. The Skymark Airlines contract for the Mighty A380s was, I believe, cancelled on the 29th July 2014.

    What is important here is that All Nippon Airways (ANA) have made their first order of many, for the Mighty A380s and in time, IMHO, their competitor JAL, will be ordering the Mighty A380 as well.

  • Bernadette Soubirous

    Just vacation in Okinawa…Just as beautiful.

  • Matt

    I wonder why Okinawa is not more of a draw for JA tourists (anyone have any statistics?).