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Direct Flight From Tokyo Lands in Kona, Signaling Return to International Travel and Pre-Pandemic Days

By Tom Hasslinger
August 2, 2022, 4:18 PM HST
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In the words of one tourism leader, it was like seeing long-lost family.

A crowd of officials, professionals, hula dancers and business owners welcomed the return of Japan Airlines to Kona on Tuesday, Aug. 2, the first nonstop flight from Tokyo to the Big Island since 2020.

The plane, loaded with 177 passengers, signaled a return to international travel and another end to pandemic life.

“It’s just the beginning,” Gov. David Ige said during a welcome ceremony at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keāhole. “And another step forward in the economic recovery post-pandemic.”

While Hawai‘i’s tourism numbers have rebounded from the drop-off from 2020, international tourism has been slower to return, specifically visitors from Japan. Through the first half of 2022, there were 34,925 visitors from Japan, compared to 734,235 in 2019. Their return signals a boost to Hawai‘i’s economy is not far behind.

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Visitors spent $86.7 million in the first half of 2022 compared to $1.03 billion in the first half of 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

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“With the return of Japan Airlines we can expect tens of thousands of tourists to be visiting the beautiful Big Island,” Ige said.

Ige and scores of others greeted the visitors as they debarked the giant red and white plane. The international tourists were then cleared in the airport’s new $58.7 million federal inspection service facility, the latest in several upgrades to the airport. When they stepped outside the building, they were greeted with music, dancing, and Hawaiian and Japanese-based businesses offering samples of their coffee or cuisine.

Hawai‘i Tourism Authority CEO John De Fries said the return was special, as the island states have shared a bond for decades. Seeing them again was a homecoming of sorts.

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“Like welcoming home family after a long absence,” he said.

Mayor Mitch Roth was on the flight. He was returning from Japan having visited Hawai‘i’s sister cities and noted the Japanese love for hula and Hawaiian culture is remarkably on display throughout the country.

As for flight itself, it was equally as impressive.

“Even in the economy we were treated like first class,” Roth said. 

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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