updated 4/29/2009 10:57:57 AM ET 2009-04-29T14:57:57

The number of visitors to Hawaii plunged 16.6 percent in March compared with the same month a year ago, led by a sharp drop-off in tourists from California, according to state figures released Tuesday.

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There were 555,902 arrivals, down from 666,167 in March 2008. The average length of stay was stable at about nine days, but tourists spent nearly 10 percent less. The declines have hit the state's No. 1 industry hard, resulting in everything from mass layoffs to drastic reductions in tax collections.

For the quarter, arrivals fell 14 percent from nearly 1.9 million to 1.6 million.

Tourism officials fear the recent swine flu outbreak could only exacerbate Hawaii's tourism woes, even though no cases have been reported in the islands.

The number of Californians traveling to the islands plummeted by 36 percent, contributing to the 25 percent drop from the West Coast, the biggest regional market for Hawaii. Visitors from the East Coast decreased 20 percent.

"March visitor statistics continue to reflect the impact global economic conditions are having on our economy," state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert said in a statement.

Slideshow: Polynesian paradise She said another factor for the decline was that Easter and spring break week for students, which were both in March last year, shifted to April this year.

Total spending by visitors coming by airplane, which accounted for about 97 percent of all tourists, fell 24.4 percent, or $258.4 million, to $800.1 million in March. The average tourist spent $163 a day, down from $180 in March 2008.

All islands saw fewer visitors in March, with Oahu faring better than the rest with a decline of 16.3 percent to 327,357. The smallest islands of Molokai (36.2) and Lanai (30) had the sharpest declines, followed by Maui (25.8), Kauai (24.7) and the Big Island (17.7).

The islands, in particular Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, were hurt by the loss of the Pride of Aloha, which was taken out of Hawaii's interisland market by Norwegian Cruise Lines in May 2008 and renamed the Norwegian Sky for service in the Bahamas.

More than a third of the decline in arrivals on the Big Island and Kauai can be attributed to fewer cruise ship passengers.

Total expenditures on the Big Island plummeted 26 percent, while Maui (24.2) and Kauai (17.6) were also hit hard. Oahu saw a 10.8 percent drop.

The lone bright spot in the dismal figures was that arrivals from Japan increased slightly by 0.6 percent, in part because of the strength of the yen. The number of Japanese honeymooners surged 23 percent in March. However, Japanese visitor spending dipped by $19 to an average of $268 a day.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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