By Dave Sagal

COURTESY ERIN KHAN
Passengers disembarked a Japan Airlines flight Tuesday at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. It marked the return of direct flights to Hawaii island from Japan since the pandemic.

The dormant tourism market of Japan is starting to come back to life in Hawaii. Japan Airlines touched down at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole shortly after 11 a.m. Tuesday with 177 passengers from Narita to mark the return of direct Japan flights to Hawaii island.

The Federal Inspection Station in Kona will now be used regularly as international tourism returns to the state. Japan Airlines will fly three times a week to Kona from Narita.

“Japan Airlines Flight 770 from Narita International Airport to the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport symbolizes the reopening of a sky bridge that will unify us and strengthen our cross- cultural bond while fortifying our efforts to enhance trade and commerce between our two nations,” Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries said during a special event at the airport.
He was joined by Gov. David Ige and first lady Dawn Ige, state Transportation Director Jade Butay, DOT-­Airports Division Director Ross Higashi, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Port Director George Minamishin and Japan Airlines Regional Manager for Hawaii Hiroshi Kuroda.

Among the passengers arriving on the flight was Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth, leading a Big Island delegation that visited sister cities in Japan.

The 32,700-square-foot Kona Federal Inspection Station was built for $58.7 million. Kona is one of two international entry points into Hawaii, with the Honolulu airport being the other.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection had allowed the resumption of international flights to Kona in December 2016 based on the Hawaii DOT’s commitment to providing a permanent inspection facility. Prior to the resumption, the last regularly scheduled international flight to Kona was in October 2010.
Meanwhile, Hawaiian Airlines resumed daily nonstop service Tuesday from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Honolulu.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Japan tourism had all but dried up, with the state having to rely on the U.S. market to fuel its tourism industry. Japan, the state’s top international market, saw its visitor arrivals fall more than 90% in June from June 2019, according to the latest data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. There were only 11,940 visitors from Japan in June, compared with 126,592 in June 2019.

Hawaiian suspended Haneda service due to the pandemic but retained flights between Hawaii and Narita International Airport. Its flight to Haneda departs Honolulu daily at 1:55 p.m., with an estimated arrival in Haneda at 5:10 p.m. the following day. The return flight departs Haneda at 8:15 p.m. and arrives in Honolulu at 9:05 a.m. the same day. To streamline departures, Hawaiian returned check-in for its Japan flights to Lobby 4 at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

During the first six months of this year, visitors from Japan spent $86.7 million in Hawaii to generate $10 million in state tax revenue.