By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Visits to Hawaii soared to a record high last year, boosted by an increase in flights and a weaker dollar, tourism officials said on Thursday.
Almost 8 million people visited the Aloha State in 2012, more than a third of a million more than the previous record set in 2006 and a rise of 9.6 percent on 2011, the Hawaii Tourism Authority said.
The surge in visitors to the tropical islands - famed for their pounding surf and lush mountains - was matched by a record $14.3 billion in spending, according to preliminary statistics.
As well as being a top holiday destination for U.S. visitors, the islands are also a popular spot for Japanese tourists who accounted for nearly 1.5 million of the state's visitors in 2012 - a 17 percent rise.
Keith Vieira, director of operations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Hawaii, said new direct flights from secondary tourist markets such as Phoenix and Las Vegas were a factor in the increase, along with more international flights from Australia, South Korea, and Japan.
Officials from the Tourism Authority also cited favorable exchange rates. The yen is currently at a two-and-a-half year low against the dollar.
Roseann Grippo, general manager of the Kahala Hotel and Resort, said another factor was that "people have more discretionary income with the economy coming back."
In 2013 the state aims to attract 8.2 million visitors, Mike McCartney, president & CEO Hawaii Tourism Authority, said in a statement.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by John Stonestreet)