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Hawaii, suffering tourism drop, appeals to President Obama

Hotel occupancy rates in the winter are the lowest in at least five years. State officials urge the president to block any policies that would limit business travel.

April 08, 2009|Hugo Martin

Hawaii has suffered one of the worst winters for tourism in recent years and has appealed to the state's most famous native son -- President Obama -- to help turn its fortunes around.

Hotel occupancy rates in the winter were the lowest in at least five years, and in February -- traditionally the state's busiest month -- the rate dropped to 75%. That was the lowest level since 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, when it fell to 69.7%, according to Smith Travel Research.

The firm said Tuesday that the rates for February have ranged from about 80% to 88% over the last five years. The average daily room rate -- another key measure of the industry's health -- dropped 12.4% in February from the same month in 2008.

Because of the country's stubborn recession, Americans have held tight to their travel dollars. But Hawaii's problems are compounded by an increasingly hostile attitude toward business travel, particularly when major corporations are laying off hundreds of workers and accepting government bailouts.

In 2008, business travel, such as conferences, conventions and business incentive programs, accounted for about 7% of all tourism in the state, or 442,000 visitors, according to state officials.

In a letter to Obama last month, Gov. Linda Lingle and 95 government leaders, business owners and tourism officials urged the president to block any policies that would limit business travel in the future.

Lingle said that since Jan. 1, 132 meetings and business trips had been canceled for this year and next, representing a loss of 87,003 room nights. The cancellations amount to losses of $58.8 million in direct revenue and 694 full- and part-time jobs in the state's tourism industry, according to the letter.

"In this period of economic downturn when our government and businesses are striving to restore economic stability, the last thing we should do is implement policies or encourage behavior that jeopardizes any industry," the governor wrote.

Obama himself may have contributed to what many tourism officials see as the vilification of business travel during an Indiana town hall meeting in February.

Asked about corporate spending and the federal bailout, the president said: "You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime."

Later, the White House tried to clarify the statement, saying the president encouraged travel, except for companies accepting government bailout money.

Northern Trust Corp. became an example of excess when it hosted clients and employees at a golf tournament at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades in February after accepting $1.6 billion in taxpayer assistance. Afterward, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation barring such expenditures for companies receiving taxpayer dollars.

Marcia Wienert, the governor's tourism liaison, said Hawaii's tourism industry has been hurt by companies that have not accepted government money but canceled trips for fear of a negative perception.

"Those are the residual effects that were unintended but are having huge impacts on our economy," she said.

In response, Hawaii's tourism leaders have launched a campaign pushing the message that workers who meet in Hawaii are happier, more productive and more focused afterward.

"If you make the decision to cancel your trip to Hawaii or go elsewhere, ultimately that can affect your bottom line," said Mike Murray, vice president for corporate meetings and incentives at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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