July 25, 2024

Gov. Josh Green, who is in Japan this week meeting with Japanese officials and business leaders, is working on lowering barriers to travel between Japan and Hawaii through a “Travel Corridor” that expands the Global Entry program, beefs up biometric screening and pursues “preclearance” status.

Green’s push to enhance tourism and foster shared economic growth between Japan and Hawaii comes as visitors from Japan, historically Hawaii’s top international market, have continued to lag the tourism recovery. The softness is mostly due to higher trip costs from an unfavorable exchange rate, fuel surcharges and inflation.

Visitors from Japan to Hawaii increased 63.8% year over year to 52,911 visitors in January, according to the most recent visitor statistics available from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. However, arrivals were still 56.1% lower than in 2019. Visitors from Japan spent $78.8 million in January. That was up 35.6% from 2023; however, it was still down 54.5% from January 2019.

The full recovery of visitor arrivals from Japan continues to fall short, and tourism officials have said it could be 2026 before the Japan market is restored to its 2019 level of more than 1.5 million visitor arrivals.

Green left for Japan on Friday and is expected to return Saturday. He said he is working with the U.S. government, the Japanese government and private industry to strengthen the bond between Hawaii and Japan.

Green issued a statement Monday from Japan emphasizing the significance of easing the travel entry experience and fostering stronger ties between Japan and Hawaii.

“Japan and the Japanese people are part of our ohana due to our historic connections, economic ties and culture, and we are committed to enhancing travel through our ‘Travel Corridor’ concept,” Green said. “By expanding Global Entry, integrating biometric screening, and pursuing preclearance status, we are making travel more efficient, convenient and secure for Japanese citizens visiting Hawaii.”

Green’s efforts to improve travel between Hawaii and Japan include continued pursuit of obtaining preclearance status, which would allow Japanese visitors to undergo immigration and customs screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at participating airports in Japan before flying to Hawaii and other U.S. destinations. The process would ease congestion at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and allow Japanese travelers to book tighter connections as well as fly directly to neighbor islands. Airports without CBP international facilities also could accept direct international flights.

The preclearance program already has 15 locations across six countries, including Dublin and Shannon in Ireland; Aruba; Bermuda; Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; Nassau in the Bahamas; and Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg in Canada.

Duke E. Ah Moo, Hilton vice president and commercial director for Hawaii and French Polynesia, said Hawaii has been advocating for a U.S. preclearance program in Japan for years.

“If we could get that over the finish line, that would set us up for future success in years to come,” he said. “It’s more of a long-term play in my mind. The challenge is Hawaii is not all of the U.S. It’s more impactful for Hawaii than
the rest of the U.S.”

It was 2015 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security first announced that it would expand the U.S. Custom and Border Protection preclearance program to include Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, was added in 2016.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige in February 2020 had expected preclearance flights from Japan were about a year out, but those plans were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In interviews with Japanese media in 2023, Green said Hawaii expected a preclearance system by 2025 and that Haneda and Narita airports were the most likely starting venues.

Green’s travel improvement focus this year also includes making Global Entry, a trusted-traveler program administered by CBP, available to more Japanese citizens. Currently, the U.S. allows Global Entry for up to 1,500 Japanese citizens. However, the Biden administration and Japan’s government are discussing removing the cap by late this year.

The Green administration also said the state Department of Transportation is working to enhance CBP’s Mobile Passport Control by using advanced biometric collection and exploring new partnerships with TSA. HDOT is reviewing the international travel process to make travel-enhancing recommendations.

Dave Erdman, founder, president and CEO of PacRim Marketing Group, said the PacRim team and its partners are excited to hear that Green is moving forward with important initiatives to ease the entry of travel to Hawaii, including potentially preclearance at specific gateway airports.

“Anything we can do to help ease the process will help create additional demand and highly satisfied Japanese travelers,” Erdman said. “The partnership with the Japanese Government is a significant statement to our Japanese friends and to the State of Hawaii and our residents, acknowledges our important ties and connections culturally and
economically between us.”

Danny Ojiri, Outrigger Hospitality Group vice president, market development, said improving ease of travel and efficiencies in the entry /exit process needs to be ongoing.

“Competitive destinations are already moving forward with making things convenient for visitors,” Ojiri said. “Hawaii just needs to keep up with the game.”

Green’s current trip to Japan builds upon past initiatives, including the inaugural Hawaii-Japan Sister State and Sister City Summit, which in July drew hundreds of senior government officials and business and civic leaders with the aim of revitalizing sister relationships in the wake of the pandemic to create new initiatives to boost trade, direct investment and improve collaboration between Japan and Hawaii.

Hawaii government leaders have done their best to ensure that visitors from Japan feel welcomed in Hawaii, where they are known for being high-spending visitors with a strong mindset toward stewardship.

Hawaii Tourism Japan, a global marketing contractor for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, has pivoted toward more aggressive marketing campaigns, including “Beautiful Hawaii” and “Yappari Hawaii,” which means “It’s got to be Hawaii.”

“We remain encouraged at the continued interest in traveling to Hawaii as a premier destination, the adjustment of our messaging to our prospective Japanese travelers, repeaters and first-timers, and the aggressive initiatives to invite our Japanese friends to return to Hawaii, now,” Erdman said.

Travel from Japan to Hawaii for the traditional peak Golden Week travel period, April 29 to May 5, is slow. However, arrivals from Japan are expected to show some improvement into summer and beyond.

“The holidays for Golden Week this year do not line up well,” Ojiri said. “We are not expecting a significant surge of business during the period. Summer and the year-end holidays are looking much better. Holidays for the year-end line up well this year.”

Ah Moo said demand from Japanese visitors is expected to start picking up in late summer.

“We are anticipating as the U.S. interest rates drop some that we’ll start to see the valuation of the yen strengthening a bit relative to the dollar,” Ah Moo said.

Ojiri said the main impediment to recovery of arrivals from Japan is cost.

“We just have to be patient with the global economics to work its way,” he said. “What does not help is media in its various forms labeling Hawaii as expensive, often referring to the price of ramen compared to the prices they pay back home.”

Ojiri said that these messages must be countered with positive messages highlighting the value of coming to Hawaii.


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