Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trouble in Paradise? Not for Travelers

HONOLULU - Whenever something untoward hits Hawaii, journalists inevitably slap a "Trouble in Paradise'' headine on their stories. In keeping with this inglorious tradition, I offer this post about travel and tourism conditions there, as we wait for the long-promised green shoots of recovery to grow the economy and get us out of this ever-so stubborn recession.

Last week, when my wife, Georgina, and I arrived at Honolulu International Airport for a holiday, we initially wondered "What recession?'' The place was packed. Long lines at Starbucks and at the luggage carousel. Long lines at Alamo, where we rented a small, cheapo car - no gas-gulping, SUVs for us, thanks - for driving around town and up to the North Shore of Oahu to watch surfers ride the big waves. The place was jumping.

But first impressions can be deceiving. The recession is real enough. Arrivals from the U.S. mainland and overseas have picked up in recent months but are still below last year - a bad year, remember - according to state tourism officials. A marketing executive at our hotel, the Kahala, in Honolulu, said the hotel had laid off staff last year, though not recently, and that Christmas and New Year's bookings, which are usually solid by now, have not yet sold out. Moreover, the Honolulu Advertiser reports that visitors from the mainland, which supply the majority of arrivals in Hawaii, are spending 17 percent less than last year. The Niketown and Banana Republic shops in Waikiki have shut down. The big losers in retail: jewelry, watches, cosmetics and perfume, which are selling as much as 30 percent below last year's volumes.

But in one of those ironic twists that mark travel, what's bad for local merchants and the travel trade can be good for travelers. The rotten economy has prompted travel vendors to offer deals to fill hotels, restaurant tables, shop aisles and hotel rooms. As mentioned in my previous post, even the prestigious Kahlala is offering fourth and fifth-night free packages for a limited time. The marketing exec I talked to didn't disclose the hotel's occupancy rate, but said repeat business from brand-loyal customers have kept most of the 5-star property's guest rooms filled. Overall, Honolulu hotel rates have fallen 16 percent in the past year, according to Hotwire HotelRate Report, cited in the Advertiser.

In short, Hawaii is on sale. Now is the time to monitor the Web for fast-changing deals. You won't exactly have the Islands to yourself - we realized that on a raucous Saturday night in Waikiki Beach, where a trio of hard-drinking young women in wigs with anime colors were doing their best Girls Gone Wild act, to the bemusement of the crowd at the Moana Surfrider Hotel's beachfront bar. Still, the fine fall weather and a relative thinning-out of the tourist crowds make this pre-holiday stretch a good time to go.

Now, if only the same could be said of London, where I'll be spending a few days next month. The recession hasn't emptied hotels in Londontown and if my preliminary digging is any indication, it hasn't lowered the British capital's sky-high rack rates, either. That won't keep me from going to London - it's my favorite city in the Western world, and my wife's hometown. But I'm going to watch those pounds and pence very carefully. In short, the opposite situation from Hawaii prevails in London; for now, what's good for travel vendors in the city of William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, and Johnny Rotten is not-so-good for travelers.

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