Nearly 8 million travelers—7,998,815, to be exact—visited the islands in 2012. That's an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year. It also breaks the previous record of 7.6 million visitors marked in 2006, before the financial crisis and recession encouraged travelers to stay home.
Mike McCartney, CEO of the tourism agency, said his organization focuses on encouraging airlines to launch new nonstop routes to the islands. Hawaiian Airlines started direct flights from Honolulu to New York City and the Japanese cities of Fukuoka and Sapporo in 2012. United Airlines launched a nonstop flight to Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C.
The tourism authority—a state agency funded by a tax on hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations—worked hard to tell travel agents about what Hawaii has to offer and prepared customized marketing programs for different cities and regions, McCartney said.
"The foundation of it all is to make sure that we support our competitive advantage—which is our people, our place and our culture—as a destination providing a unique experience to our guests," McCartney said in an interview Wednesday.
Travelers spent a record $14.3 billion in Hawaii last year. This is nearly 19 percent more than they spent in 2011 and it
The agency expects continued growth this year, with the visitors expected to exceed 8 million in 2013 and spending forecast to top $14.8 billion.
McCartney said the agency would aim to continue growing Japanese markets, increase the frequency of flights from South Korea and China and build on growth in travel from the U.S. East Coast region. Taiwan is another promising market: Hawaiian Airlines plans to fly nonstop between Taipei and Honolulu starting in July.
More than 80 percent of Oahu hotel rooms were full during the year on average. Even higher percentages were occupied during peak travel periods. Yet McCartney said Hawaii has room to welcome more visitors.
He said there's opportunity for growth during the off-peak months around April and May and October and November.
There's also potential on neighbor islands, where occupancy hovered above 70 percent on Maui and Kauai and above 60 percent on the Big Island, he said.
"There is capacity, and strategically going forward, we're going to try to improve those numbers," McCartney said.