By Jacob Aki
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our Hawaiʻi in so many different ways. Yet, one of the bright spots of this past year was that we were forced to slow down, reflect and reimagine a better Hawaiʻi for the future.
For the first time in generations, tourism in our islands came to a complete halt. During this time, our ʻāina was able rest, rejuvenate and we had the opportunity to experience our Hawaiʻi in ways that we haven’t been able to due to over-tourism.
The ability for kamaʻāina to enjoy our communities without having to compete with malihini has prompted many of our government leaders and their agencies to “rethink the way we do tourism.”
In East Maui, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and Rep. Lynn DeCoite have been some of the leading voices in these efforts to reimagine Hawaiʻi’s tourism strategies. As legislators, they are all too familiar with the visitor-related concerns of their district – high traffic volume on Hāna Highway, parking issues on roadways and the detrimental impact of over-tourism on our natural resources.
In response to these concerns, they convened numerous stakeholder meetings during the pandemic to receive input from the community on the issue. As a result, they partnered with the County of Maui, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the Maui Visitors Bureau and a number of other agencies to explore various ways to better manage the high traffic flow of visitors to East Maui by implementing a reservation system at popular destination sites.
As part of the first phase of this initiative, DLNR began implementing a new reservation system at Waiʻānapanapa State Park on March 1, 2021.
Under this new system, all visitors and commercial operators are required to pay and make reservations to enter the park (entry and parking for Hawaiʻi residents continue to remain free). In its first month of operation alone, the park was able to garner over $100,000 in parking revenue, create a half-dozen jobs for local Hāna residents, greatly improve the visitor footprint and traffic flow into the community, while still being able to accommodate nearly 7,000 reservations (roughly 250–300 reservations per day).
For people around the world, Hawaiʻi’s main draw is its natural beauty – our parks, our beaches and our people. But these are finite resources that must be managed properly. This “new way” of managing tourism aims to not only improve the overall visitor experience (by ensuring prized amenities like parking or reserved visit times), but more importantly, better manage the community impact of tourism for kamaʻāina.
New systems like these are not perfect and are constant works-in-progress. But if we’ve learned anything during the COVID-19 pandemic it’s this – the status quo is unacceptable and we must do better.
By promoting our cultural values and emphasizing the protection and management of our natural resources, we can emerge from this pandemic with a new, reimagined way of doing tourism that benefits both kamaʻāina and malihini.
Jacob Aki is the Director of Communication for the Hawaiʻi State Senate. He previously served as the Chief of Staff to Senate Majority J. Kalani English from 2016–2020. Jacob is active in various Native Hawaiian civic organizations such as Hale O Nā Aliʻi O Hawaiʻi and the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. He is from Kapālama, Oʻahu.