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When destinations around the world began closing their borders last spring, Hawaii was the first U.S. state to ask tourists to postpone their vacations. The Aloha state then became first in imposing a strictly monitored two-week quarantine on anyone choosing to venture there amid Covid. The measure didn’t halt all mainland tourists at first, but over time, in part thanks to its isolated borders, it was effective in chilling tourism and flattening the Covid curve.

Despite reopening to the mainland last October, under a pre-flight testing program that eliminated most quarantine requirements, the late restart means the tourism dependent state continues to lag in recovery, with its unemployment rate among the highest in the U.S. at more than 10 percent as of November.

But in stark contrast to other tourism-starved places eager to welcome back tourists, tourism business owners and residents in Hawaii did something you would never expect: they pushed back on welcoming visitors to the islands. That surprising stance very well may signal a turning point for one of the world’s most popular destinations, which at times in recent years has been overwhelmed by overtourism.

A recent resident sentiment survey on behalf of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, of 1,709 residents on all islands statewide, revealed that nearly two-thirds or 65 percent of Hawaiians still don’t want people from outside the state to visit Hawaii.

What’s at the root of this stubborn pushback a time when tourism is slow and jobs few? It’s not mainly a fear of Covid spikes — a couple of outbreaks have followed since reopening — or a fear of visitors not respecting local health protocols. It’s reforming tourism as it existed.

“[W]e’re seeing an unusual pattern,” Chris Kam, president and chief operating officer for Omnitrak, which conducted the survey, told Skift. “This may indicate that overtourism concerns persist among residents. Simply rebuilding tourism to previous historic highs may not be the tourism recovery residents want to see.”

Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management, a marketing consulting firm focused on travel and hospitality and dean of hospitality at Kapi’olani Community College, agrees. “In 2019, we had about the same economic impact as going all the way back to 1989, but several million more visitors,” Haas said. “So people were seeing congestion, they were seeing impacts on their lives. [I]t’s really simplistic to say there are too many tourists. The more accurate way of describing it is we didn’t manage tourism very well.”

For Hawaii then, balancing reopening the economy with public health will also require simultaneously tackling the major issue that no destination had managed to resolve successfully pre-Covid.

“The beaches are empty, the water is clearer, there’s no traffic jams,” Haas said. “There’s this feeling that well, we don’t want tourism to come back the way it was. But I don’t think the people see it coming back better. And that’s what has to happen.”

Addressing the Root Problem

In 2019, Hawaii received a record 10.4 million visitors in contrast to the state’s population of 1.4 million. But Hawaiians have long felt irate for the past several years at their declining quality of life and the environment, as visitor numbers increased and crowds were left unmanaged.

Born and raised on Maui, Kyle Ellison has witnessed the overtourism on his island first-hand over the latter part of his 30 years there, while wearing varying tourism industry hats ranging from guidebook writer to divemaster, and raising a family of three.

“Now that, as tourism has started to come back again and the crowds have increased, there hasn’t been any meaningful movement in terms of addressing the previous issue [of overtourism],” Ellison said. “And a lot of people fear it’s just going to go back to what it was before.”

But Hawaii tourism officials have been cognizant of the underlying overcrowding problem and the need to urgently reinvent tourism by pushing for sustainability in lieu of looking at arrival numbers as a measure of success.

At the start of 2020, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) instituted a 2020-2025 strategic plan with four main pillars intended to put Hawaii on a trajectory towards responsible tourism: natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community, and brand marketing.

The plan includes a community consultation process whereby, through a series of meetings and surveys, tourism stakeholders as well as non visitor industry individuals participate in the decision making process to reinvent tourism on their respective islands.

The community meeting consultations have continued in spite of Covid, and are now spearheaded by the first-ever native Hawaiian to lead Hawaii’s tourism industry, John De Fries.

John De Fries, Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO

Born and raised in Waikiki and no stranger to tourism, De Fries, CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told Skift he had felt encouraged last year when he previewed the 2020-2025 strategic plan.

“What struck me was that it felt like the industry had caught itself. That it recognized that unless you start to pay attention to the health and vitality of your natural resources, unless you took added steps to perpetuate traditional practices of the native people … there’s going to be increased conflict, increased resentment in the community surveys.”

De Fries told Skift that while concerning and important to this office, the resident pushback sentiment survey results weren’t surprising, noting that these divided sentiments on tourism are par for the course in Hawaii.

“I think we live with this, right in my own family,” De Fries said. “Those survey results are reflective of what many of our local families feel. Every community has this inherent polarity in this particular situation we’re in and that polarity is part of the community that’s pro business and pro tourism and then you have people on the other end of the spectrum who are not oriented that way.”

Recognizing that the pre-flight testing program is “not the perfect answer but it is an incremental step in the right direction,” De Fries and his office are continuing the work in communities across the state’s primary destination islands — Kauai, Maui Nui, the Island of Hawaii, and Oahu — with the aim of crafting destination-specific development action plans.

An integrated Community Tourism approach

Part of the solution in confronting overtourism pains requires conversations at the granular level and community feedback. Steering committees for each Hawaiian destination lead the discussions that are held with stakeholders and residents on how to avoid going back to the same uncontrolled way tourism operated in the past. De Fries said that he joins them when necessary to stimulate the conversation.

“I will say to the community members participating: ‘in some of these hotspots, I would encourage you to think about whether there are certain places that only locals can go on Saturday and Sunday. But that’s not a decision for me to make about your community, that’s not a decision for the governor to make about your community, that’s for your community to make.’”

De Fries noted that the challenge is getting businesses to agree to giving up seven day traffic and to realize it’s not sustainable to expect that volume.

“When all of us go on vacation, every day is a weekend. But for that local community, every day is not a weekend. You could end up with communities just stopping tourists in the middle of the road because they’re so upset and heaven forbid there’s any sort of physical violence. But if you don’t deal with it, that’s kind of where it’s heading.”

Once locals reach a determination on the places they’d want limited to locals, then the Hawaii Tourism Authority would help the destination communicate with public officials at the county and at the state level where public policy would have to be remade, new laws would have to be passed in order to wrap it around the community’s vision of tourism.

“I want them to understand the boldness with which they need to think about their own future,” De Fries said. “I say to them: you need to take this seriously because when you live on an island and the resources are limited, we need to know how to nurture the resources and we need to know how to share it.”

The hope is that once decisions are made and regulations passed, the responsible visitor would then learn about them pre-travel and avoid places that are designated off limits to non residents.

But is it as simple as limiting crowd size at popular sites and marking locations as resident-only?

Technology Must Play a Role

Experts and residents agree that technology plays an important role in Hawai’i’s overtourism problem — it created it but it can also help manage it.

According to Haas, part of Hawaii’s overcrowding issue is caused by a lack of management practice or restriction on visitors, but social media and GPS technology also have led visitors to places that are remote just to get “that shot.”

Ellison agreed, pointing to a further issue of visitors who make poor decisions by going off the beaten path only to get hurt, taking away from residents the already limited capacity of first responders on the island.

“They are trying to find waterfall hikes they saw geotagged on Instagram, they’re trying to get the selfie picture of some wave exploding behind them or whatever it is, and we had visitors getting into trouble and need rescuing almost on a daily basis.”

But Hawaii has begun taking baby steps. Recently, it limited crowd-size access to two popular sites: Hanauma Bay and the Diamond Head State Monument trail.

“Hanauma Bay just reopened; they’ve limited capacity to 120 people at a time, they’ve raised impact fees so those fees will come back to the state,” said Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, noting that the impact will show with reduced traffic and lesser harm to the environment.

More restrictions are being proposed for additional popular destinations around the Hawaiian islands. “So I think there’s a lot that we can learn from and things that we are implementing and it starts with the state leadership and the tourism leadership — and we’re on board,” Dee said.

In a recent paper Haas co-authored, experts note that capping visitor numbers is progress, but that overtourism is a much more complex issue that will require the integration of technology in tourism management to turn Hawaii into a smart destination.

Moreover, high spending visitors should be targeted if Hawaii is to receive fewer travelers.

”You need to refocus on the mix of visitors … who are the highest spending visitors, who are the visitors that have the most economic impact and the least negative impacts on the place,” Haas said. “So if we know we’re not getting 10 million visitors, the focus has to change less about the raw number and more about the characteristics of the visitor.”

Altering Tourism Perceptions Amid Crisis

Passionate about educating travelers on responsible tourism in Maui, Ellison told Skift that while everyone agrees overtourism needs resolution, faulting tourists is too simple of a solution.

“Our kuleana [responsibility] as an island and as a community is to establish ways that visitors can visit responsibly,” Ellison said. “It’s very easy to get upset at visitors, but a lot of our resident frustration should not be exclusively directed at them. What have we done to make it so that they can visit sustainably?”

In the meantime, getting people back to work remains top of the agenda, as in many tourism-dependent destinations where jobs have suffered as a result of a decimated industry.

“We were able to open one of our hotels, we still have two closed, and I think that’s the situation for most in the industry,” Dee said. “The tourism industry here represents about 40 percent direct and indirect of the Hawaiian economy. So having no tourism is really, really difficult for people. The lines for food pick up and food distribution are hours and hours long.”

At the end of the day, the tourism economy is in dire straits, as are tourism businesses — resorts and restaurants, among others.

“It’s going to be really hard just to financially shift the model that all of this was built upon and how to address the overtourism,” Ellison said.

The Future is Regenerative

As the discussion evolves between tourism authorities and concerned residents – the latest fury relates to the Maui school closures due to rising cases and locals protesting prioritizing tourism over the public health — De Fries noted that there’s one thing everyone agrees to, whether pro tourism or not: the need for each community to take responsibility for the restoration and preservation of the archipelago’s nature and culture for generations to come.

It’s what the Hawaii’s new tourism campaign is banking on: the native ancestral concept of “Malama” which means “to nurture” and aligns with the principle of regenerative tourism.

“So my emphasis has now moved towards regenerative tourism by saying, even those of you that don’t like tourism or resist it, let’s all agree on one thing: in three of four generations from now, we want the natural resource base to be even healthier than what it is today — our fresh water, our forests, our coastal zones,” De Fries said. “I haven’t run into one person yet that said I don’t agree.”

Sixty-eight hotels and tourism businesses are part of the Malama Hawaii campaign so far, as well as a host of volunteer organizations and Alaska Airlines. Essentially, it’s an offer for visitors and residents to “take a trip that gives back to Hawaii” and “travel deeper and slower” by signing up for an ecotourism and volunteer learning activity while in turn benefiting from travel perks for doing so.

Outrigger Hotels and Resorts’ “Malama Hawaii Experience” includes an eco-voluntourism activity at Kualoa Ranch Private Nature Reserve. – Image courtesy of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts

“For our program, we work with the Kualoa Ranch,” Dee said. “It’s about 4,000 acres that is on the northeast coast of Oahu and an hour and half drive up the coast [.] So if you book a stay at Outrigger and also book a two hour ecotourism adventure, then we offer you an extra night free.”

At the ranch, visitors learn about the island’s ecosystems, coral reef health, micro-plastics and other environmental issues that affect the island, thus turning visitors into more responsible tourists.

A Shifting Cultural Landscape

While most agree that promoting regenerative ecotourism is the future, the pithy comments that have poured in from recent community meetings and follow up surveys — made publicly available by Hawaii Tourism Authority — show a disconnect in the urgency of dealing with overtourism. They also reveal that some locals’ visceral reaction to tourism bear deeper roots that reflect a shifting cultural landscape amid Covid.

Maui resident comments range from “[a]ll of Hawaii needs to get rid of tourism and go more into agriculture” to suggestions on controlling the amount of rental car availability.

Kauai’s survey results express disappointment in the proposed destination plan’s failure “to acknowledge the core problem (overtourism)” and that “the Steering Committee is deluding itself if it believes that Kauai residents’ tourism-related concerns and hostility are primarily due to insensitive tourists, rather than the direct result of there being too many tourists.”

Post-Covid, remote affluent workers have been moving to the state and purchasing property outright, creating a wave of longer term tourism and rising tensions as the cost of living increases and locals’ land ownership dreams are eclipsed.

“All of this also comes at a time of the rise in Hawaiian cultural identity and the movement behind Hawaiian reclamation of lands that were taken,” Ellison told Skift, pointing to the Hawaiian belief in living in unison with the land which is clashing against tourism as a form of extraction of resources that enrich corporate entities without a nexus to the island.

“How do you reinvigorate the culture if you don’t have access to a beach because a resort has shut off access or the cost of living is so high you can’t go out with your kids and teach them sustainability the way it used to be?”

bold leadership and decisiveness are critical to chart a New Course

The visitor statistics forecast for Hawaii shows that tourism will reach 6.1 million visitors in 2021 and 8.76 million in 2023.

As crowds continue to trickle back to the Aloha state, how Hawaii will prevent anti-tourism resident sentiment from continuing to rise remains its greatest challenge, the solutions for which could serve as lessons to other destinations that were prone to overcrowding pre Covid and are likely to face similar issues in three to four years.

Tourism officials know the road ahead isn’t paved with roses. De Fries told Skift that’s exactly why he went for the job.

“You know I’m at a time in my life when I should be working on my golf game,” De Fries said. “What got me was the fact that inside the crisis there were these opportunities that I could sense and see. But it’s going to take a lot of hard work. You gotta do it face to face. I can’t run an ad or a television show. I’ve got to be in the trenches. And you do it with the elders, you do it with the leaders, you build it there so that they feel that there’s something solid here happening, that it’s not just another campaign, that we are actually in the process of rebuilding our community.”

For Ellison and Hawaiians in and outside of the travel industry, it’s going to require resolving the overcrowding issue for locals’ perceptions to shift positively.

“I think that Hawaii Tourism Authority or the industry as a whole, making some hard but necessary decisions to address overtourism that have an actual actionable component to it right now would go a long way in public perception of saying ‘hey, we hear you and we’re going to do something about this.’”

Photo Credit: Hawaii is facing a reckoning over the future of its tourism as some residents push back on welcoming visitors. Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau