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'Regenerative Tourism' Movement Wants Benefits to Outweigh Costs

Waikiki Shoreline
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
An aerial view of post-pandemic Waikīkī, Hawaiʻi's tourism hotspot.

Even before the pandemic, movements were underway to shift Hawaiʻi’s visitor industry toward a model that gives back more than it takes. Industry experts call this “regenerative tourism,” a system where the benefits of tourism outweigh the costs.

Island communities are feeling the impact of the post-pandemic influx of visitors – whether it's traffic on the Hāna Highway or crowded surf breaks in Waikīkī. If left unchecked, these “costs” may hurt the industry in the long run, says John De Fries, President and CEO of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority.

“Unless we’re clear about who we are, our responsibilities, caring for our ʻāina, caring for our kai, caring for our children and communities—Unless we mold that into a new model for tourism, we’re not going to be able to compete successfully,” says De Fries, “And we’re not going to be able to hold the confidence of our communities that this industry, in fact, can be of benefit to our quality of life.”

Pauline Sheldon, professor and former dean of UH Mānoa’s School of Travel Industry Management, says the answer may lie in “regenerative tourism.” She’s studied this model for years in places like Canada and New Zealand, and says it requires a change in mindset.

“It's very important that we stop thinking of tourism as an industry. It is a system that is nested in other living systems—food systems, health systems, medical systems, transportation systems,” says Sheldon, “And so if we think about it as a system that’s connected to other networks, then we make very different decisions than if we just think about an industry.”

The hospitality sector is emphasizing a “regenerative mindset” in its latest marketing campaign Mālama Hawaiʻi.

“Again the message that we’re conveying through Mālama (Hawaiʻi) is inviting our visitor to come to Hawaiʻi. Join the community, be part of the effort to keep this place beautiful so that your grandkids can come and visit and my grandkids can live here in their home,” says Kainoa Daines, the Director of Culture and Product Development at the Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Daines says the campaign is more than just messaging.

“So right now people can stay in a hotel in Hawaiʻi, and each hotel is offering an incentive of some kind to stay at the hotel – third night free, fourth night free, complimentary meal tickets or whatever it might be – in turn, they go and they give back to a non-profit,” says Daines.

That could mean working in a taro patch or restoring a Hawaiian fishpond. But Daines says the program isn’t for everyone.

Some communities hit hard by the pandemic aren’t ready to welcome tourists back, and others aren’t prepared to host large numbers of visitors.

Sheldon hopes Hawaiʻi can use this pandemic pause to create meaningful visitor experiences in thriving communities.

“But on a more macro level, I think that if we design regenerative tourism here and all over the world, we’ll be able to make a contribution to usher in a more equitable and regenerative way of living on the planet,” says Sheldon, “So we have our work cut out for us.”

It's work that could produce a model that leads to tourism that is not just economically sound, but also sustainable.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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