BY JESSICA FERRACANE – In a bittersweet gathering at Kona International Airport this morning, Hawai’i tourism and government officials said a hui hou (until we meet again) to the last direct Japan Airlines flights between Narita and Kona.

The Kona route was among 15 international routes Japan Airlines (JAL) announced it would suspend in 2010 in order to restructure the company through bankruptcy and return to profitability.

JAL offered the only direct international flight outside of North America to Hawai’i’s Big Island, and is an essential link between Japan and Hawai’i. Since the inaugural Kona flight in June 1996, JAL has carried more than 980,000 visitors between Narita and Kona. It is also a vital carrier of Big Island exports including macadamia nuts, papayas, coffee, spirulina, abalone and desalinated sea water to the Japanese market.

“The JAL flight is without a doubt the most important international route for Hawai’i Island. The positive impact it has made on our economy for the last 14 years is highly significant, and we truly hope to welcome JAL back someday,” said Big Island Visitors Bureau Executive Director George Applegate.

According to the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, 164,745 Japanese travelers visited the Big Island in 2009 for an average 3.01 days. Japanese continue to be the largest spenders per person/per day of all major market areas, and despite the economy, spent on average $268 per person/per day last year, totaling $108.5 million in revenue for Hawai’i’s Big Island in 2009.

Arriving passengers on JAL Flight 70 were greeted with lei, live Hawaiian music and smiles as they disembarked the B767-300ER aircraft. (The flight landed about a half hour late due toTyphoon Chaba approaching mainland Japan.) Afterwards, Hawai’i County Deputy Managing Director Wally Lau addressed JAL employees, thanking them for their years of service and for sharing their aloha with Japanese visitors.

“JAL has made many difficult decisions worldwide in recent months. Local ties, relationships and history that have been cultivated over countless years are now being affected. JAL recognizes and deeply appreciates the invaluable support of the Big Island and Kona community for the past 14 years, and also how necessary and vital this support is for a successful restructuring,” said Dan Yanagihara, JAL’s Kona Station Manager.

“I too am hoping for a speedy recovery for Japan Airlines, and hopefully with it, the company could reconsider the possibility of serving the Big Island community once again,” Yanagihara said.

Departing passengers on JAL Flight 79 were also sent off with fresh flower lei, Hawaiian music and well wishes from Hawai’i tourism officials. Firetrucks sprayed the departing jet with huge streams of water in a farewell gesture.

Submitted by Big Island Visitors Bureau spokesperson Jessica Ferracane.

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards.