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Putting Hawaii Tourism On A Sustainable Path Post-Pandemic

John Bilderback
Traffic backed up along Laniakea Beach, just north of Haleiwa. The section of Kamehameha Highway passing Laniakea is a notorious bottleneck for traffic. Many North Shore residents blame tour buses and the rise of social media for the growing congestion.

Economists say the state’s economic situation will remain dire without tourism, but residents are fed up with overcrowding by visitors. Experts say now is the time to reorient Hawaii’s visitor industry to a more sustainable path.

 A prime example is that of Laniakea Beach. The 150 yard stretch of white sand is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Oahu’s North Shore. On a normal day, hundreds of visitors gather to watch the Hawaiian green sea turtles that feed there regularly.


But with all those visitors comes traffic, as many as 15,000 cars per day, according to the state Department of Transportation. The two lanes of Kamehameha Highway passing the beach have become a notorious bottleneck, turning routine errands into hours-long events for area residents.


The problem has been getting worse every year, as the total number of annual visitors to Hawaii has also been increasing. In 2019, more than 10 million tourists visited the islands.


But all that changed with the global COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism has slowed to a trickle, with daily visitor arrivals at a fraction of what they were during the same period last year.


The lack of tourists has led to a starkly different quality of life for residents, particularly in visitor hotspots like North Shore. Kathleen Pahinui, chair of North Shore Neighborhood Board, says now is the time to look at reforming the visitor industry.


“We can’t go back to 10 million. Nobody was happy. I don’t even think the visitors were happy, because everywhere they went was crowded too,” she said.


Around the world, countries from the Philippines to Ecuador have been grappling with how to address over

tourism. Some like New Zealand are charging an entry fee, while others are considering a numerical limit on visitors.


But many of those options are not available to Hawaii under the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from restricting the movement of U.S. residents across state lines and reserves for Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce.


However, there are still plenty of ways to better manage tourism, according to hospitality consultant Frank Haas. He says the problems associated with tourism are less about the total number of annual visitors, but rather having too many people in the same place at the same time.


“If we have 1 million visitors, and they all go to Turtle Beach at Laniakea, that’s overtourism,” Haas said. “It’s not the 10 million visitors, it’s their behavior and the type of activities they engage in.”


So how can authorities better manage visitors at popular attractions and residential communities? Haas, who is also a member of the Hawaii Public Radio board, says it is already being done. He cites the reservation system for visiting the summit of Maui’s Haleakala and the parking limits enacted last year at Haena State Park on Kauai as examples of how to improve the unregulated flow of people into high traffic areas.


“Managing tourism is a lot about restricting access, managing access, charging access fees,” he adds.


Credit Maine Corp Base Hawaii
People gather at Laniakea Beach to observe the sea turtles that commonly feed and sun themselves at the popular North Shore beach.


Haas says the use of ticketing and reservations, particularly through app-based systems, should be expanded to include other popular attractions. He cites Hanauma Bay on Oahu as an example, but notes that the practice should be expanded to include cultural attractions like popular museums and businesses.


Another strategy for better managing the tourism industry is to attract fewer, but higher-spending visitors. Another way to think about it is to appeal to people who are looking for a premium experience.


Chris Barzman runs the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii. The group provides a sustainability certification to local tourism operators based on their business practices like mitigating environmental degradation, water use and waste stream management.


Barzman says expanding the use of sustainability certification can help attract those higher-spending visitors. Certifications will communicate that approved businesses are providing a premium product in terms of minimizing environmental and social impacts, and are thus worth paying a higher price. A parallel can be drawn to more expensive organically grown meat and produce at the grocery store. 

Existing players in tourism, like the Hawaii Tourism Authority, can provide a market incentive to push the industry in that direction, according to Barzman. Operators may be reluctant to raise the cost of doing business in a competitive environment, so regulators should provide a reason for them to do so.


“Promote the ones that are doing the right thing and we don’t promote the ones that aren’t,” he says.


It’s an idea called Regenerative Tourism: leave the destination better than when you arrived. Barzman says that means marketing to a different kind of visitor, one who wants to do right by the host culture during their vacation.


“People who have the ethos of wanting to travel to destinations where they’re having a positive impact on that destination,” he elaborates.


With tourism largely shut down, he says now is the time to shift Hawaii’s visitor industry in that direction.

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