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Raise the Spirits

Hawaii’s visitor industry taps a growing niche: health, wellness and spiritual tourism.

The daily occupancy rate at David Greenberg’s treehouse resort in Hana, Maui, is significantly lower than the average occupancy at other Maui accommodations. Every night, one guest, occasionally two guests, check in. Greenberg doesn’t mind at all. “These are travelers who are now going around the world looking for the perfect place,” says the president of Treehouses of Hawaii Inc., the company that operates Hana Lani Treehouses. “They’re nomadic, they’re looking for the right spiritual environment. Some of these people made a lot of money in Internet stocks. Some are young, in their early 20s.” One such person was Sean Lennon, son of the late Beatles band member John Lennon. Last April, a hotel concierge suggested the place, and Sean booked a treehouse for one week, Greenberg says.

Hawaii’s visitor industry is well aware of this specialized travel segment. Some refer to it as wellness tourism. Some call it ecotourism or geotourism. To others, it’s spiritual tourism. Regardless of the monikers, industry leaders agree that there needs to be a unified effort to promote this type of travel in the Islands. Hawaii is a haven for alternative activities, from Zen meditation facilities to spas and fitness centers. “We need to clarify how we market it, and it needs to be more than just a niche,” says Laura Crites, owner of Aloha Wellness Travel, a company she created in February 2001.

Crites is also part of a group that recently founded the Hawaii Wellness Tourism Association. To reach their goal of 150 members by the end of July, association leaders organized the group into two tiers: preferred providers and open membership. The latter includes non-traditional groups — such as alternative healers and religious places of worship. “There are churches that are serene, peaceful places that might want to reach out to visitors. As long as people see wellness tourism as a retreat to a spa or resort, then the definition is not going to take off,” Crites says. “People are looking for deeper meaning, something to fill that emptiness in their big, hefty lives.” Today’s tourists crave simplicity, an experience that steps away from fine-dining restaurants and shop-til-you-drop excursions.

Even shopping has declined among Hawaii tourists, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Total shopping expenditures in 2000 fell to $2 billion, roughly 13.6 percent lower than the previous year.

At the time of this writing in early May, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau was creating a database of wellness-travel information. The material will be added to the bureau’s Knowledge Bank, which is accessible to off-island media groups. “We’re trying to collect different images, video, copy and music to define the different types of wellness experiences,” says Sandra Fukushima, a bureau member who is organizing the effort. “We hope to tap into different sources, like the museum association.” Once operational, the bureau’s Knowledge Bank will be an added benefit for local entrepreneurs and small-business owners who market their services through word-of-mouth and the Internet.

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Hawaii Business,June