The tourism industry collapsed in many places around the world due to COVID-19, including Hawaii. The state is investing in programmes and projects to make tourism more sustainable. What can the rest of the world learn from Hawaii?

In 2019, Hawaii received a record 10.4 million visitors. In 2020, this slumped to 2.7 million people, down 74% from the previous year. While tourism is the lifeblood of the state, a survey conducted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the agency charged with promoting Hawaii around the world, found that about two-thirds of Hawaii residents say they still do not want tourists to return to the islands.

This is due to what many locals describe as an “extractive and hurtful” tourism industry, one where “tourists come here and take, take, take, without any reciprocation with locals.” Hawaii is hoping to become less reliant on tourism. 

This view echoes those of many locals in other popular tourist destinations, like Machu Picchu, Venice, Barcelona and Iceland, where they complain about inconsiderate travellers, damage to natural landmarks and resources and overcrowding.

These cities, like Hawaii, have taken the last year without tourists to figure out how to change a sector that is often rife with problems to being more sustainable and considerate of its impact on locals. In September 2020, representatives of 22 European cities, including Berlin and Prague, met with a European Commission leader to call for stricter regulations on short-term vacation rentals that have made housing increasingly unaffordable for locals. Meanwhile, in the US, residents of Key West in Florida have approved three referendums to limit cruise visitors.

How Hawaii is Rethinking How its State Parks Operate

A popular destination called Diamond Head received more than 1.2 million visitors in 2019. This resulted in long lines, wear-and-tear on facilities and naturally, badly behaved guests which overwhelmed park authorities. 

Now having the time and capacity, the Department of Land and Natural Resources added traffic lights on either of the Kahala Tunnel, which visitors must drive and walk through to enter and exit the park, essentially turning the tunnel into an alternating one-way access route. Additionally, the pedestrian walkway at the entrance was more than doubled to encourage people to walk in rather than drive. The department has also raised prices for nonresidents and hopes to decrease the amount of people in the park to make the hiking experience more enjoyable. 

Besides Diamond Head, the department has also created a reservation system at Haena State Park on Kauai and at Waianapanapa State Park on Maui and has limited parking spaces, among other measures. The department said that making life easier for locals who live in the community was “an important part of the process of reimagining the park and how tourists visit it.” 

The Importance of Technology & Data

Technology and data are key to making changes. The department is using cellphone information and on-site data from state parks to get an idea of how many guests have out-of-state phone numbers, which of those people are wandering in parts of the park where they aren’t supposed to be, and what time of day they typically arrive and leave, which will inform how the reservation system is set up. The department is hopeful that this information will allow them to charge different prices for different times of the day and year. 

Becoming Less Reliant on Tourism 

Many locals believe that tourism can and should coexist with other sectors of the economy, like farming, retail, health care and culture, instead of being the overarching sector. 

Kako‘o Oiwi is a farm that has been working to restore hundreds of acres of wetlands to their native state by cultivating taro, a root vegetable and once a staple in Hawaii, in terraced patches. Before COVID-19 hit, the farm’s leaders were wondering how to amp up its eco-tourism programmes, however they were surprised when more locals started coming to work the land last year. This has led many people to point to the potential for growth in farming and ‘green collar jobs.”

John Leung, the chief executive of Kupu, a nonprofit that provides service programs in conservation and sustainability, said this model could be expanded to offer employment to more people to diversify the economy and provide those who work in tourism new opportunities and skills.

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Looking at Tourism Differently

To look at tourism in a more regenerative and sustainable way, this could involve rethinking the role of the tourism authority. According to the New York Times, many residents of Hawaii believe that the organisation has become too powerful and overfunded, pushing tourism at the expense of everything else. 

John De Fries, the chief executive of the Tourism Authority, says, “We are at a time when our very survival is at stake. We understand that there are currencies other than cash that we have to reconcile. Some of those other currencies are the natural environment, a sense of well-being in the community. There’s currency in ensuring that Hawaiian cultural traditions are and should be protected.”

In January 2020, the authority created a 2020-2025 strategic plan with four areas of focus-  natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing- to manage tourism responsibly going forward. When the pandemic hit, the agency decided to continue working on the plan. In particular, it kept consulting with residents about how they feel about tourism.

De Fries adds, “Everyone I talk to- hotel owners, elders, even the people who don’t like tourism- agrees that we all want future generations to have a natural resource base that’s in better condition than it is now, so we have to care for it and anyone with any aloha for this place will understand that.”

Featured image by: Flickr