Mayor Kenoi, How About A Hilo/Puna “Stimulus Trip” to Japan?

Hawaii’s visitor numbers continue to slide and Japanese visitor trends are falling right along with ‘em. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that even in the current downturn people are still coming to Hawaii. It seems that even in hard times the hardcore Hawaii lovers find ways to get here, especially the “exceptional” traveler who visits the East side of the Big Island.

Keep in mind that although the overall Japanese numbers are down statewide, a friend, who specializes in East-side tours serving the Japanese market is experiencing double-digit growth compared to this time last year. He says his success is tied to the “niche” lure of Hilo, Kilauea and Kalapana, backed by his company’s impeccable service. He seems to be doing something right, as many of his customers are repeaters. The strong yen and reduced airfares are helping too.

More good news: With the booming popularity of Hawaiian culture in Japan, Hilo has the capacity to make the economic pie bigger for everyone, and do it without destroying the charm of the East side. With the growing popularity of the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo could rightfully be touted as the “Mecca of Hula”. So much more culture and resources–including University of Hawaii–are waiting to be tapped. What are we waiting for?

If the right people chose to do so, Hilo could give its economy a big boost by targeting the right demographic–the retiring Japanese baby boomers–and offering a new generation of culture/education centered products. Japanese tourists who come to Hilo typically aren’t looking for surf, sand and sun. (Thank goodness for that.) No, the Hilo lovers tend to have a special affinity for–indeed a spiritual kinship with–Hawaiian culture. Like my friend’s repeat customers from Japan, many Japanese visitors keep coming back to Hilo for new cultural experiences. They seek a deeper, authentic “spiritual” experience that only Hawaii can offer.

When I talk about Japan’s spiritual kinship with Hawaii, it’s a connection that runs deeper than even the genetic and cultural ties Japanese visitors share with the local Japanese-American populace (although the connection is not insignificant); I’m talking about connecting points on a more basic, primordial level.

As I learn more about native Hawaiian culture, it’s become apparent that Hawaii and Japan share powerful cultural connecting points. Consider this: Japan and Hawaii are both volcanic, island cultures; both share an awe-inspiring love of nature and beauty, a polytheistic religious tradition, and spirituality rooted in animism (the belief that spirits inhabit the natural world in the form of rocks, rivers, trees, waterfall, etc.). The ancient Japanese honored the gods by building shrines in beautiful natural places, often at the top of majestic mountains; much like the Hawaiians, Japanese understand and respect the notion of a “sacred place.” When Japanese come in contact with Hawaiian culture and spirituality, it never fails to awaken their Shinto sensibilities and inspire the feeling that they’re with kindred spirits.

In light of these powerful connecting points it shouldn’t surprise that Hawaiian culture commands such an avid following in Japan. So why not leverage these common values to bring the right kind of visitor to Hawaii?

Even with the economic downturn Hawaiian culture continues to enjoy popularity in Japan. Clubs promoting Hawaiian arts, crafts, music, language and travel are proliferating. Some estimates claim that nearly half a million Japanese are studying hula today. (That’s an incredible number.) Other Hawaii-themed clubs are focused on “long-stays” and part-time retirement options in Hawaii. Some of the old-timers even come to study English as a second language.

The Japanese retiring right now are indeed an attractive demographic. This is the last generation of big savers in Japan. Most have kept their money stuffed in mattresses…er…Japanese banks–but at nearly 0% interest it’s almost the same thing! The way I see it, they need our help spending this money. That’s where Hawaii comes in!

The real “gem” demographic is “dankai no sedai”, the Japanese “baby boomer” generation over 7 million strong. They are at retirement age right now. This demographic is said to have over $2 trillion in savings, and it doesn’t even include pensions. Thankfully most Japanese boomers were too conservative to put their money in the stock market (either that or their wives wouldn’t let them). This is probably the most recession-resistant demographic on the planet right now.

It shouldn’t surprise then that Japanese seniors in this cash-rich demographic, being retired as they are, have a lot of time on their hands. With hobbies to pursue and travel destinations to visit, they offer numerous opportunities for the right entrepreneur. The key is reaching the market then delivering quality products and services tailored to satisfy their needs.

With so many Japanese-American professionals in Hilo–doctors, lawyers, dentists and politicians–you’d think we have the connections and resources to launch a campaign to promote “traditional old Hawaii” to untapped markets in rural Japan.

Imagine this: A high-profile “Japan roots tour” where Mayor Kenoi (a little birdie told me he’s married to a Japanese woman) and other esteemed Hilo-ites visit Japan as ambassadors to drum up business for East Hawaii. They could start by having high-profile Japanese-Americans do a “roots tour” to geographical areas of their ancestors, reestablish old family ties, make connection with Japanese politicians, and then work outward from there. During this “stimulus trip”, our distinguished leaders could invite relatives, new friends and Hawaii fans in rural Japan to “bond” with East Hawaii on a deeper level–through tourism, education, cultural exchange, new friendships and business opportunities. Our ambassadors could deliver a kind of “love letter” from Hilo saying that we welcome with open arms our Japanese friends, family and kindred spirits to visit our unique part of the world.

Imagine how much this could benefit the people of East Hawaii.

I’m not confident the above scenario will ever happen, but the potential opportunities for East Hawaii are mind-boggling. Why not leverage the values that bind us to build a mutually beneficial relationship between Hilo and Japan?

Just some new ideas for our new leaders in Hilo to chew on…

And if Hilo’s leaders ever need help in making things happen with Japan, drop us an email. Kurumi and I would love to help.

The next post will discuss another idea on stimulating Hawaii’s East-side economy–once again with a little help from our friends in Japan.

Copyright © Tim Sullivn 2009


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