A top Maui tourism official said that the island's visitor industry is "leveling off" after a period of double-digit monthly growth, and March and first-quarter data reflect that reality.
"We have been running double-digit monthly (growth) all last year and that is not sustainable," said Terryl Vencl, Maui Visitors Bureau executive director, on Thursday.
"There was going to be a leveling off," she said.
That was reflected in preliminary Hawaii Tourism Authority visitor statistics for Maui that showed a 7.1 percent decrease in the island's total visitor expenditures to $328.5 million in March compared to March 2012. The decrease was driven by lower daily spending, down 11.3 percent to $179 per person, and a slightly shorter length of stay, down 1.1 percent to 9.45 days.
Arrivals to Maui for the month were up 3 percent from March 2012 to 221,568 visitors, with increases from the Mainland West up 5.1 percent to 96,465, and Canada up 4.4 percent to 39,767 visitors. That offset declines from the Mainland East, down 3.1 percent to 58,625, and Japan, down 5.7 percent to 5,753.
Through the first three months, Maui arrivals by air were up 5 percent compared to the same quarter last year to 617,052 - the lowest percentage increase in the state - and total expenditures were up 2.5 percent from the first quarter last year to $1.1 billion. Oahu logged 7 percent growth, Kauai 6.8 percent and the Big Island 5.3 percent over the first quarter in visitor arrivals.
The average length of stay for the quarter by air for Maui was down 2.1 percent over 2012's first quarter to 8.65 days, and per visitor spending per trip was down 2.4 percent to $1,717.10.
Aside from the leveling off, Vencl said that the island may be starting to experience the effects of sequestration, $85 billion in automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts for this year that took effect March 1.
People are getting laid off and furloughed as a result of the cuts, and "we are going to see the effects of that," she said. She also noted that furloughs began at the Federal Aviation Administration, which could create air travel delays for fliers.
"We are seeing sequestration effects beginning to show up," she said. "We are having concerns."
Vencl could not explain the decline in visitor expenditures in March. She did say that even with the declines the tourist numbers are still pretty strong. Citing the slight reduction in the quarterly average length of visitor stay, she noted that 9.45 days (Maui's average when nonair arrivals are included) was still the highest in the state.
Even during the worst of the recent recession, Maui's length of stay held firm. Vencl attributed that to things the island has to offer for visitors.
Looking ahead, Vencl said that the island needs to "go back to look for that first-time visitor," such as honeymooners.
"They are higher-spending visitors," she said.
And while the West Coast is the island's "bread and butter," there needs to be a focus on attracting visitors east of the Rocky Mountains and in developing markets in Asia, such as China, South Korea and Japan; and in New Zealand and Australia.
Statewide, the first quarter of the year surpassed last year's record-breaking visitor spending numbers, putting $279 million into the economy and $29 million into state coffers as tax revenue, said Mike McCartney, president and chief executive officer of the tourism authority.
An average of $44 million was spent daily statewide by visitors from January to March with $12 million spent daily in Maui County, said HTA.
There was a 7.1 percent increase (2.1 million) in the number of arrivals statewide for the quarter compared to the same quarter last year. Expenditures were up 7.6 percent to $3.9 billion.
Looking at the monthly figures, total expenditures by visitors who came to Hawaii in March rose 7.8 percent (or $91.8 million) from March 2012, to $1.3 billion, according to tourism authority data. Contributing to this increase was a growth in total arrivals (up 7.6 percent to 769,047 visitors) and higher daily spending (up 3.3 percent to $186 per person), which offset a shorter length of stay (down 3 percent to 8.93 days).
For the other islands in the county:
* Lanai - for the quarter, 2 percent decrease in visitor expenditures to $22.5 million, 1.8 percent increase in visitor arrivals to 19,693; for March, 14.2 percent hike in expenditures to $7.5 million, 0.5 percent increase in arrivals to 6,870.
* Molokai - for the quarter, 22.6 percent hike in expenditures to $9.8 million, 2.7 percent increase in arrivals to 14,335; for March, 70 percent hike in expenditures to $2.3 million, 4.3 percent increase in arrivals to 4,486.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.