Reshaping Tourism

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For a brief moment during the pandemic, kamaʻāina experienced Hawaiʻi without the pressure of tourism. But then the state opened back up, and tourists returned in droves. Hawaiʻi’s tourism industry came under a magnifying glass and people were concerned by what they saw.

Residents and organizations – the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) and the ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures Initiative among them – called for changing what has become an unsustainable model of tourism.

The newly appointed team at HTA’s helm, including its first leader of Native Hawaiian ancestry, says changing the visitor industry is necessary and possible. “Tourism today is doing exactly what it was designed to do seven decades ago, which was to generate more and more and more. We’ve reached a time in Hawaiʻi’s history where the community is saying that model is no longer sufficient or appropriate,” said HTA President and CEO John De Fries.

The challenge, he said, is to continue to generate $2 billion a year in tax revenue for the state – revenue which funds education and other essential functions kamaʻāina rely on – while adopting a “regenerative” model of tourism that gives back to communities and the ʻāina.

According to a 2021 UH Mānoa Public Policy Center survey, most residents want to limit visitors and charge user fees, especially at some of Hawaiʻi’s most vulnerable environmental and cultural sites. In the short-term, HTA is advocating for the use of technology to manage the flow of visitor traffic to popular destinations, as is currently used at Hanauma Bay on Oʻahu, or on the north shore of Kauaʻi to access Hāʻena State Park.

HTA is also working to attract “mindful travelers,” a term used in the industry to describe travelers who understand, embrace and uphold their responsibility to mālama the place they are visiting.

Since its establishment in 1998, HTA’s focus has been on marketing. But its new strategic plan calls for more “destination management,” which emphasizes addressing tourism-related problems, attracting and educating responsible visitors, and improving natural and cultural resources.

“As a Hawaiian, I think about it in the context of this is my home, these are my neighbors, this is my family. We have to understand the holistic impacts of tourism on our home, both good and bad,” said Kalani Kaʻanāʻanā, HTA’s chief brand officer. “There are positive impacts we want to amplify, and negative impacts we want to try to mitigate or lessen. When I think about destination management, it’s balancing all those things.”

The shift toward destination management comes at a time when residents are concerned about tourism yet supportive of its benefits. HTA’s 2021 Resident Sentiment survey found that more than 75% of Hawaiʻi residents answered “yes” when asked whether they thought tourism is worth the issues associated with it. Other surveys have suggested that visitors, too, want to experience a less consumptive and more authentic travel experience that includes supporting local businesses and volunteerism.

“The market is showing signs of arcing toward better environmental awareness and cultural sensitivity,” said De Fries. “If I’m going to invest in a vacation or a trip, the experience has to be meaningful, and at the heart of meaningful experiences is authenticity – and authenticity cannot be imported. It cannot be fabricated. It cannot be counterfeited. It can only come from one place – the community.”

Across the pae ʻāina, technology is now being used successfully to manage the flow of visitor traffic to some popular destinations that had become increasingly overrun in recent years by tourists. Managing the number of visitors allowed at a time into these wahi pana helps to protect their fragile ecosystems. Two such destinations are (left) Hanauma Bay on Oʻahu (Photo: © segawa7/Adobe Stock) and (right) Hāʻena State Park on Kauaʻi (Photo: © nizePhotos/Adobe Stock).

“For decades Hawaiʻi has been promoted as a playground. That’s a very shallow identity of Hawaiʻi,” said De Fries. “Beyond being a place of rejuvenation and recreation, Hawaiʻi is a place of deep spirituality. It is a place that has a legacy of innovation and more than a millennium of accrued native intelligence.”

Supporting Native Hawaiian culture and community is one of HTA’s pillars and they work with the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA) and others to educate industry professionals about Hawaiian values to help them provide authentic experiences to visitors.

NaHHA not only hosts cultural training for industry professionals, it also collaborates with other organizations, promoting ʻŌiwi-owned businesses through their online Kuhikuhi directory and creating visitor-volunteer opportunities with travel2change.

Photo: Surfboards on Waikiki beach
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Hawaiʻi went into a lockdown and tourism halted, kamaʻāina experienced – most of us for the first time – what it was like to enjoy our beaches without crowds of tourists. This generated important conversations about sustainability, economic diversity and managing tourism in a way that benefits our people and our ʻāina. This iconic pandemic photo of deserted Waikīkī Beach on a glorious summer day was taken in late May 2020. – Photo: Jason Lees

“There are aspects of Hawaiian culture that are meant to be shared, and others that Hawaiians consider to be just for us. Maintaining balance sometimes means we have to set limits on what is – and is not – accessible to visitors,” said Mālia Sanders, NaHHA executive director. “I am constantly seeking this balance. It is something we should all be more mindful of as we look for new ways to navigate tourism and find balance in sharing what is uniquely Hawaiian.”

The communities of each island will ultimately shape the “brand” or the unique experiences for their island, said Kaʻanāʻanā. To this end, and with community input, HTA has developed destination management action plans for Kauaʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island.

“My ask is that we, as kānaka, don’t run away from tourism and just throw rocks from the outside, but that we engage with it, see the opportunity that we have to influence it, and then reshape and change it,” said Kaʻanāʻanā, who joined HTA five years ago because he did not feel Hawaiians were involved in the tourism discussion in a meaningful way.

Beyond tourism, some Native Hawaiians want to see greater change and are advancing plans for a stronger and more sustainable Hawaiʻi founded on ʻāina aloha.

During the pandemic, a diverse coalition of ʻŌiwi leaders created the ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures (AAEF) Initiative and drafted an action agenda that calls for, among other things, the adoption of a regenerative visitor economy and support for emerging economic sectors to reduce the dependence on tourism.

“Our solutions come from islands, not from continents. We need to talk about how we can generate more of our own power, address our food independence, and be less dependent on imported goods,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the founding members of AAEF. “All of those things are not new. We just need to remind ourselves and to have our whole system – political leaders, businesses, community organizations and individuals – to engage in the changes and take responsibility for them.”

In terms of tourism, Wong-Wilson, who once worked in the visitor industry, supports the use of carrying capacity numbers and user fees, as long as they are specifically earmarked to care for the environment and cultural resources that are impacted.

Over the course of a year, more than 2,700 individuals, organizations and businesses, including HTA, signed the ʻĀina Aloha Economic Futures Initiative Declaration. Leaders in government, industry and politics are using the initiative’s assessment tools, proposals and vision. The county councils for Maui, Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island have already signed the declaration and are using the tools. Wong-Wilson added that the Hawaiʻi State Legislature’s Native Hawaiian Caucus has reviewed the initiative’s policy ideas, which include proposals to invest in local food systems and economic equity.