Experts say Hawaii's tourism officials are making a genuine effort to build back better, but this is where the rubber meets the road: Who will tackle Hawaii's overcrowding problem? And with legislators aiming to slash Hawaii Tourism Authority's funding and authority, how will a majority domestic tourism market impact Hawaii's travel industry?
A fragmented global tourism recovery has created the perfect storm for Hawaii to rank as one of the most in-demand destinations for American travelers this summer. It’s not the slow ramp-up that the Hawaii Tourism Authority had anticipated, nor a larger reopening in the midst of a global competition for travelers.
With major source markets including Asia, Oceania and Canada still restricted to travelers in both directions, plus the flow of disposable income from federal stimulus checks and controlled pandemic in Hawaii — west and east coast U.S. travelers are flocking to the archipelago.
“Tourism is back and it’s very American,” John De Fries, CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “I would expect that summer in Hawaii is going to really match where we were in summer 2019; that’s a lot faster than any of us could have predicted.”
Close to a half million visitors flew to Hawaii in April, primarily from the mainland. The numbers are approaching the daily visitor average of 28,500 a day in 2019 — De Fries said that the last couple of weeks have averaged between 21,000 and 23,000 tourists a day.
Visitor spend for April reached $811 million, compared to $1.32 billion in April 2019.
Beyond the numbers, however, lies a more complex tourism rebound.
It’s a lower-spending and beach-focused domestic tourist that’s heading to Hawaii, which could have unintended consequences for its travel industry.
The rush also comes just as Hawaii Tourism Authority is facing a potential $20 million budget and authority slash, after months of being knee deep into the work of “building back better.” Community-based destination management action plans are almost complete, identifying each island’s hotspots and priorities, and a regenerative tourism campaign launched this month.
House bill 862 aims to limit the tourism board’s role to marketing rather than funding cultural programs, citing accountability for pre-pandemic spending patterns. Hawaii Governor David Ige will either sign or veto the bill by June 21.
“That budget reduction is concerning but it’s not the end of the world, we anticipate a surplus that we will carry over of roughly $12 million,” De Fries said.
Of greater concern to De Fries are the future funding mechanism changes in the bill. The transient accommodation tax, which usually goes into a Hawaii Tourism Authority special fund, would move into the state’s general fund. Those tourism tax funds would then have to be spent within the fiscal year and left over monies wouldn’t roll over as in the past.
“This will affect Hawaii Tourism Authority’s multi-year contracts and having some level of certainty; those things preempt the normal flow of operations and business,” said De Fries.
The bill points to a disconnect in state legislators’ understanding of the tourism board’s expanded role in managing tourism beyond marketing, particularly since De Fries took over as CEO in September 2020 and began pushing for a community-based approach to tourism.
“It’s our responsibility to educate our own elected officials,” De Fries said. “But at the same time, if we don’t get up front and continue to try and reshape the stereotypes that have evolved over time in travel to Hawaii, we won’t be able to affect the kind of change that we seek.”
Residents are showing more faith that tourism reform can happen than they did six months ago, but there are looming legislative restrictions on the tourism board’s funding and authority — just as it tries to reinvent the wheel.
A New Regenerative Tourism Campaign Series
Hawaii’s tourism board released a new video series this month as part of the “Malama Hawaii” regenerative tourism campaign.
Each clip features a traditional practitioner or conservation leader telling the story of a key aspect of Hawaiian culture, from caring for fish ponds to farming and protecting forests and reefs.
Viewers are invited to come and “Malama” or care for Hawaii by learning about unique ways to connect and restore the destination beyond the tourist tropes.
De Fries said that it’s about communicating to the markets the different ways of life that are of value to Hawaiians, and at the same time, creating a new approach for those practitioners and non-profit organizations who are currently rebuilding their capacity after being impacted by the pandemic. Tourists volunteering will go towards that effort.
“The tourism industry in Hawaii has to be invited into those places, so we look forward for that to grow,” De Fries said. “Those videos are powerful because these are local people telling local stories and there are no better storytellers than local people telling their own stories.”
Some of the non-profits featured might have capacity for six tourists at a time, while others can handle up to 30 people at a time, De Fries added. ““It’s an introductory program on both sides of the equation — both for the visitor and for the host.”
The regenerative tourism campaign has resonated locally, and tourism marketers are also applauding the effort.
“It’s a great start,” said Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management, a travel and hospitality marketing consulting firm, and former dean of hospitality at Kapi’olani Community College.
Haas said that it was pushing back against “the curse of a strong brand,” and that people have this intense image of Hawaii as beaches and beautiful resorts that is hard to change.
“The campaign strikes a nice balance of education and inspiration through character-driven and community-led storytelling,” said Rob Holmes, founder and chief strategist at GLP Films, a content marketing agency focused on the travel industry and producing sustainable tourism storytelling campaigns. “That works really well in tourism because it taps into emotions and creates powerful connections.”
Holmes said that the tourism board should be commended for engaging stakeholders in the community and giving travelers the tools and inspiration to be part of the solution, while also reframing Hawaii’s measure of success by celebrating regeneration and preventing overtourism rather than pushing for more visitors.
For Haas, changing mindsets through social marketing takes time and as such, expectations need to be managed.
Meanwhile the initial phase of the Malama Hawaii campaign, which Skift reported earlier this year, continues with tourism stakeholders offering travel perks to visitors who sign up for regenerative tours.
“We’re proud to report that Kualoa Ranch is in high demand and reporting many fully sold-out dates and future booking demand for the package and the ranch itself through the entire summer,” said Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, in a statement. “We plan to continue this program for years to come.”
Just a week ago, the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center published the results of a new and independently run online survey measuring resident attitudes to destination management issues.
The survey was completed by 700 Hawaiian residents between April 16 and May 3. The findings, while not surprising to tourism experts, are a major nod to Hawaii Tourism Authority’s efforts in pushing for regenerative tourism and its ongoing work in creating a community-minded tourism economy through new DMAPs.
Among the survey’s most interesting data:
- 52 percent of residents are still in favor of a visitor cap on the islands if it were possible
- 57 percent said that if forced to choose between capping visitor counts to Hawaii or management of crowded areas, they would pick the latter
- 60 percent believe the government should control or regulate tourism more than other businesses, and 75 percent support regulation of short term rentals
- In a list of actions that the state could take to address tourism impacts, residents supported the most: informing tourists about “responsible visiting,” solving problems at overcrowded locations, and funding environmental groups “to repair damage” to natural resources caused by tourist use.
As for Hawaii tourism officials’ current track focusing on destination management, 35 percent said “keep the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and give it more authority to do its cultural, environmental and community work,” while nine percent chose eliminating the tourism board and marketing Hawaii altogether.
Backyard Tourism’s Potential Consequences
The international visitor has all but disappeared for Hawaii for the near future. Out of the near half million in April, just 10,842 came from Japan, Canada, Europe and other international markets.
According to Haas, there may be broader implications for Hawaii with international heads being replaced by domestic ones.
“What’s coming back is the domestic market and particularly the West Coast market, which has different spending patterns,” Haas said. “One of the issues that we’ve long had is an overall decline in visitors spending, especially when you adjust for inflation.”
With the higher end of the visitor market — the international traveler – in terms of daily spending now missing, the effects on the tourism economy are yet to be seen.
“So even though we’ve got this rapidly increasing volume of return visitors, we’re getting the visitors who tend to spend less — this has larger implications for tourism, from fewer stays in full service hotels versus short term rentals and in turn affecting employment.”
Another implication relates to the eventual return of the international markets, which are often wholesale driven. Will those markets be able to get room blocks when the international travel starts to come back, if rooms are going to be filled with fit domestic visitors?
Experts recently predicted that global tourism recovery would not take place until 2024. With Hawaii ticking all the boxes as a nature-packed destination, plus American travelers focused on health and safety issues, the domestic tourism trend is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
Regenerative Tourism Mission Transcends Agencies
Redirecting course for Hawaii long-term through regenerative tourism will require Hawaii’s tourism officials to work across various government agencies with jurisdiction over the archipelago’s natural resources.
“This whole Malama mindset is something that transcends our agencies; our efforts are being driven by having a different mindset about it rather than government agency to government agency,” De Fries said. “There is a philosophical foundation that is guiding us to collaborate more effectively.”
In its resident sentiment report, the University of Hawaii also concludes that “it may now be time for a truly systematic weighing of alternative approaches to tourism governance, though that should include the possibility of truly committing to HTA [Hawaii Tourism Authority] much as it is now or with selected improvements.”
Hawaii Tourism Authority’s detailed destination management action plans outline hotspots and aspirational goals for each island following multiple stakeholder and community meetings.
But there are no actual solutions proposed within the report itself. Haas said it’s because the Hawaii Tourism Authority does not have the power to make unilateral decisions on overcrowded sights overseen by other state agencies.
“The destination management action plans highlight the issues but they also suffer from the fact that Hawaii Tourism Authority does not have the authority, despite its name, to actually do something about that,” Haas said. “The rubber meets the road when you say who should do something about that and how and with what resources?
Haas said that the new resident sentiment survey — which he participated in — confirms this need, that someone, whether the tourism board or the governor, needs to be able to say how the management of tourism will happen.
For Haas, regenerative tourism is ultimately a long-haul effort. “It’s a slog and that’s why we really should have been doing management planning back when tourists were at five to six million; you can’t just snap your fingers because they’re foundational problems to be fixed over time.”
De Fries said that while visitor caps are not possible, efforts can be made to sensitize airlines, for instance, in terms of where future flights go and the destination management action plans provide a framework for developing new public policies.
For now, the tourism board will be expanding its local ambassador program to add guides and support in areas across Hawaii’s islands that tend to be overcrowded.
“I’m feeling optimistic but at the same time I’m feeling challenged because many of these campaigns and systems that we’re talking about require time to get them implemented,” De Fries said.
“We’re not going to have that ramp up that we had anticipated, but I’m encouraged by the way leaders in our industry and community have been responding.”
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Photo credit: Tourism is bouncing back to Hawaii faster than tourism officials anticipated, just as a regenerative tourism campaign launches. Nicholas Tomasello / Hawaii Tourism Authority