Tackling overtourism and committing to sustainable growth requires new public policy and support from the top layers of government. For Hawaii, that opportunity could come next August.
It’s become clear that striking the right balance for tourism in one of the world’s most popular destinations needs to go beyond good intentions and be part of public policy.
Redirecting Hawaii’s visitor economy into one that balances the state’s natural and cultural assets, and the well being of its communities and profit, will require policy that could come down to voting in the upcoming state elections in August 2022.
That was a key point that emerged from the public update that Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) gave last week, which focused on sharing details from the destination management organization’s recent efforts in addressing overcrowding and how it’s also implementing community feedback that was incorporated into destination-specific management action plans or so-called DMAP.
The road to reshaping Hawaii’s tourism industry remains long and as domestic tourists continue to misbehave or put pressure on the destination and Hawaii’s tourism authority puts forth its best efforts, skepticism remains that the tourism board alone can steer the industry into a more community-minded, responsible path.
But the authority doesn’t have all the powers needed to ensure the state embraces sustainable tourism growth — a point that Hawaii tourism’s leader made on Friday when answering an audience question about how the state will ensure the preservation of Hawaii’s resources long-term, which are critical for tourism.
“We have every right to demand this level of planning, sensitivity, and awareness of everyone of our legislators and the administration,” said Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO John De Fries.
“Let me point out that next August everyone is up for election so to those legislators that you support, make it a major issue because everything we talked about today needs to be supported by policy. It’s no secret that the human consciousness is always going to outpace public policy and we just have to narrow that gap. I’d urge you to get involved in our communities and go vote.”
The Hawaii Tourism Authority, in its update, reiterated the community’s involvement in the DMAP process, and that solutions they identified together are helping to relieve a variety of pressure points on the islands.
Completed actions from the DMAPs so far include, among others, the launch of GetAroundKauai and the Maui Aloha Shuttle for alternative transportation options, funding the Hawaii Sustainable Tour Operator Certification Program, monitoring visitor counts at hotspot areas, producing Covid health and safety brochures for Kauai’s airport, the relaunch of the Go Hawaii App as well as the Hawaii Farms Trail App to provide opportunities for residents and visitors to take part in agricultural tourism activities, and hiring four part time stewards to help manage the Pololu Valley hotspot area on Hawaii Island.
The DMAP work and community responses has also required the creation of a new role at the Hawaii Tourism Authority as part of the tourism board’s work in steering the industry responsibly — a Native Hawaiian Chief Brand Officer. While not part of the DMAPs, new “destination managers” roles were also created for each of the major islands, to help push the plans forward on the ground, coordinate meetings with the community and inform.
Data is also at the center of a better understanding where tourism is headed, hence Hawaii’s new Symphony Dashboards, which monitor lodging trends, as well as top points of interest for tourists per island and their multi-island visit trends. Similar visitation insight data for residents by county is also now tracked for the first time.
Not of small note is the fact that Hawaii’s tourism board is now led by a trio of Native Hawaiian executives for the first time, including CEO De Fries, Chief Brand Officer Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, and George Kam, chairman of the Hawaii Tourism’s board of directors.
Parallel to the the authority’s destination management efforts, Hawaiian Airlines recently launched a new “Travel Pono” in-flight video and campaign in September, which plays at landing, advising visitors on how to act responsibly when exploring Hawaii. It features advice shared by airline employees ranging from flight attendants to pilots, who are also volunteers at various organizations in Hawaii.
Arching Towards Authentic Experiences
Pushing for regenerative, conscious travel means innovating what’s on offer for travelers. Authenticity is what the market is arching towards, HTA’s De Fries said.
Indeed a whopping 76 percent of U.S. travelers said they were willing to pay more for tourism experiences that are respectful of the Native Hawaiian culture, according to a new study by the University of Hawaii. Over 70 percent also are in favor of supporting sustainable tourism experiences overall, which the survey says shows an increase since 2020, as “the younger generation is pushing more and more towards sustainability.”
Travelers are also willing to pay more for it — over 35 percent are willing to pay an additional 10 percent, and almost 20 percent are fine with forking out an extra 16 percent.
What’s more, almost 80 percent of Americans said they were willing to pay more for locally grown food to support Hawaii’s farming industry, with nearly 40 percent saying that they would be willing to pay an extra 11 percent on their restaurant bill for it. The majority of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 60, and 59 percent identified as white or caucasian.
“Can we envision a future where we build the capacity to identify, train, qualify and certify local families to host a luau for 10 people or less in their homes at $200 a head?” De Fries said on Friday. “Would that be an authentic experience that somebody would value? The answer is yes.”
There’s only one place you can get authenticity, De Fries added. “It’s from the community, which is why the partnership with the community is so important.
When Domestic Demand Meets International
Domestic travel continues to make up Hawaii’s primary visitor market. As of August, 99 percent of the more than 722,000 visitors were from the mainland U.S., according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. But officials said on Friday that they expect international travelers from Japan to return by the first quarter of 2022 and are getting prepared.
What will happen then when the increased wave of domestic travelers meets the return of the deep pocketed long haul visitor?
It’s an ongoing dilemma for Hawaii as it continues to figure out how to shape the traveler’s mindset towards sustainability and responsible behavior while in-destination, while implementing solutions to improve residents’ quality of life.
Capping airline seats or the airlines pushing budget fare deals isn’t something that the Hawaii Tourism Authority can control, De Fries said on Friday in response to a question that surfaces time and again on Hawaii.
“We’re having to transform and reshape the largest industry, not in a vacuum,” said De Fries. “We are working within the field where the forces of free enterprise are at work… we cannot control all of that but we have an obligation to establish where we believe the heart of Hawaii is, and constantly bring focus to that in hopes of elevating the consciousness of the business operator, but also elevate the awareness of the prospective traveler.”
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Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority gave an update on its island management plans as tourism continues to soar. Ben Ono / Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority