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Annual conference focuses on shifting the future of Hawaiʻi tourism

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Maine Corp Base Hawaii
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The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority is looking ahead.

Sessions at last week's Hawaiʻi Tourism Conference included Native Hawaiian cultural workshops and discussions, and updates on important tourism markets.

But the main focus was changing state tourism for the future.

"I have seen, you know, managing local residents and out-of-state visitors in our natural and cultural landscapes has pretty much been sloppy, without any real indicative plan of outcome," said Curt Cottrell, administrator of the Parks Division at the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.

"For the past 100 years, Hawaiʻi tourism evolved and was promoted organically — meaning we just started putting it together, trial and error. And resources and communities bore the brunt," Cottrell said. "Something that I've seen in my 31 years at DLNR is, and in Hawaiʻi in general, we just give our natural and cultural resources away to the visitor industry."

In an effort to reverse the negative impacts of tourism, the HTA has promoted regenerative tourism in recent years. Under regenerative tourism, visitors and the industry help to leave a destination better than it was before.

Concepts such as "voluntourism" and visitor fees for attractions have been associated with regenerative tourism.

"We've been like a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet, and now we're learning to revalue our resources. So maybe less tables, you need reservations," Cottrell said. "Visitors haven't even blinked at the new rates. Diamond Head used to be $1 to walk in, $5 to drive in. Amazingly low."

Studies from the University of Hawaiʻi surveyed visitor willingness to pay extra for expanding local agriculture, efforts to preserve natural resources, and supporting cultural initiatives.

"Almost 80% [of surveyed visitors] said they'd be willing to do this and pay," said Jerry Agrusa, professor at UH Mānoa's Travel Industry Management school.

One presentation discussed how regenerative tourism is not a new concept. Examples include the recently installed reservation systems at several state parks.

Another option is business commitments to community partnerships and education efforts.

"We have to make sure that our relationships are reciprocal," said Taylor Ledgerwood, assistant director of the Kahala Hotel's Initiative for Sustainability, Culture and Arts.

"Our kuleana is to give back to our community, to give back to our natural resources. And as an industry, we can't just rely on these nonprofits to do the work for us without being consistent and being reliable. And these organizations are constantly looking for funding for support, and they want to share their efforts."

In order for regenerative tourism to work, panelists emphasized the importance of community partnerships and support. However, these partnerships can be difficult to form.

But Alika Garcia of Kuleana Coral implored industry professionals to work with the community and build these partnerships.

"There's opportunity to be the lead of this new economic vision, and that it will have financial benefit to you. If that's an incentive to come up with solutions and find partners," Garcia said. "I think there's a lot out there, and there's a lot of community-based groups that have generational knowledge of their area. Seek them out in wherever you work, and find ways to partner.

"They might not want to work with you or trust you, and you might not want to work with them or trust them. But those relationships are there, you just have to make it and I think you're going to find that it's going to benefit everybody in the future," Garcia added.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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