Tennis tourism: Big Island sees a bounce from the socially distanced sport

In the age of coronavirus, it goes without saying that sports have suffered. In Hawaii and on the mainland, however, tennis appears to have been an exception.

Across the country, the United States Tennis Association reported a jump of approximately 11 million more people playing tennis in 2020 than in 2019; in Hawaii, local USTA officials have seen a corresponding boom in interest for the sport that’s among the most ideal for social distancing.

Ron Romano, the executive director for USTA Hawaii Pacific Section, said a pent-up demand for the sport during the pandemic lead to a significant jump in interest for tennis lessons across the state.

“We run an Oahu program. Generally, if we open up registration, maybe it takes a week or two weeks for the classes to fill up,” said Romano. “The first one we opened up in January, the class was full within 24 hours.”

Importing the program from Oahu to the Big Island is Albert Murata, the new tennis director at the Royal Kona Resort. After growing up in Kona, Murata spent more than three decades teaching tennis on Oahu before returning home to the Big Island in January. While lessons are set to begin later in February, courts at the Royal Kona are already like many others around the Big Island: filled with players for social play or informal round robin tournaments.

“It has a very local vibe,” said Murata of the matches at the Royal Kona. “There’s a tennis community that’s been doing these round-robins for ages. People just want to get out and play tennis in a safe environment.”

The Big Island, with tennis clubs dotting the coastline, has evolved into a tennis destination over the years. With interest in the sport increasing during the pandemic, Romano sees this trend continuing into a strong future for tennis in the Aloha State.

As some government leaders anticipate a possible return of large events to the state by this summer, Romano hopes the USTA will be able to bring back sanctioned tournaments to the Big Island.

“Resorts like Mauna Lani, Mauna Kea, Fairmont Orchid, we normally work with them as a national governing body to sanction a lot of their events,” said Romano. “We’re pretty optimistic that, maybe by the summer or third quarter, that we could be back into having tournaments. We’ve come up with guidelines where instead of having everybody show up at one time, we have staggered times. And then we also have some guidelines on spectators.”

In addition to tournaments and events, individual tennis tourists have made up a significant portion of those visiting the Orchid Isle in past years. Even without the events, some have returned to the Big Island in recent months, and Romano is optimistic the number of these type of tourists will grow moving forward.

“Hawaii as a tourist destination, from a sports marketing point of view, is very popular with tennis players,” said Romano. “They fit that demographic where they’ll go to the resorts, especially in the winter and the cold months, where they can come and play tennis.”

In Murata’s short time back on the Big Island, he’s noticed that many people he interacts with as tennis director have elected for extended stays. When they can choose to work remotely and, unlike many locations they’re coming from, are allowed to enjoy the surf, sun and play tennis, it’s easy to see why he and Romano are encouraged by the future of tennis tourism in Hawaii.

“They come here on extended stay because they’re realizing, ‘Hey, I can work remotely. Why not stay here and play tennis?’” said Murata. “Especially if they’re from someplace like California, why go back? I could see it happening more often.”

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