Following the airport paper trail: Where do Department of Agriculture declaration forms go?

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Filling out those Department of Agriculture declarations is a drill arriving passengers in Hawaii often dread, but do.

"They tell me I need to fill it out so I fill it out" said Waialua Resident Kurt Nozaki.

California Visitor Justin Quariza added, "We definitely don't fill it out anywhere else."

The State's mandatory plant and animal declaration is on the front. A tourism survey is on the flip side.

"Do you think they take the time to read every one of these forms?" Hawaii News Now asked Chaminade student Vanessa Menor. "Probably not" said Menor. "There's a lot of people that fly into Hawaii."

More than 8 million to be exact.

We followed the paper trail from an arriving Hawaiian Airlines plane.

By law, the forms must be handed over before any passengers or bags exit.

The envelope goes from gate agent to ramp agent, through the baggage maze to an Ag Department employee.

That worker walks it through baggage claim, to another AG inspector to be checked by hand.

That's the first step of their journey. Every single envelope from every flight picked up ends up at Fort Street Mall at SMS research.

Every AG form is scanned and stored electronically forever.

"We average about 5 thousand a day" said SMS Research President Jim Dannemiller. "They're running through one by one, thousands of them. We read them all and we should let people know that."

He added, "you're talking 10 to 11 people who work everyday. It's a pretty big job."

The final destination for this data is the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

HTA pays 140 thousand dollars to print 7.5 million forms in 5 languages and another 250 thousand to process the paperwork.

The forms are picked up daily to track tourism trends.

HTA Director of Tourism Research Daniel Nahoopii said, "It's the envy of all the States and most nations that we can collect data so quickly. Most states and countries have to wait 6 months to a year before all their immigration data comes in."

The State gets a lot of mileage out of this data.

It's used by the Department of Business and Economic Development to tally tourism impact. DBEDT projects an increase in visitor arrivals and spending for 2014 based on the surveys received so far.

The data also helps the Council on Revenues to form its forecast. The Council recently lowered its forecast to project zero growth in general fund tax receipts.

Nahoopii added, "The number of visitors coming, they use that to kind of determine the amount of revenue that will be collected."

HTA's researcher says it's a small investment that's marketing gold for the State's top industry, because "that information you fill out actually goes back to improve your experience."

The papers pile up so they're stored at SMS Research in boxes for a few months, then shredded.

HTA tells Hawaii News Now the return rate is 95-percent.

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