Watching the evolution of Hawaii tourism over time has been like watching a kid grow up.

We’ve had our growth spurts. We’ve skinned our knees a few times. We’ve even had some awkward phases.

It seems that now we’re at that point where, like a middle-aged patient, we’ve scheduled an exam and the doctor says “you’d better take care of yourself.”

We probably need to go on a diet. Given all the angst in the media and at the Legislature about tourism, we probably need to lower our blood pressure, too. And like any patient looking to achieve “wellness” we certainly need to make some serious lifestyle changes.

What are the symptoms … and what do we need to change?

The Waikiki skyline with Diamond Head in the background. The author says it’s time for the state to rethink its marketing strategy for the visitor industry. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

For one thing, we’re suffering from anemia. If you look at the performance of the visitor industry in terms of visitor days and arrivals and compare them to real (inflation adjusted) visitor spending, we find that we’re hosting a lot more visitors and not much — if any — increase in real economic impact.

Since 2005, visitor arrivals have grown 25.7 percent and visitor days have grown 24.1 percent while inflation-adjusted visitor spending has been about flat. In other words, impacts have increased but benefits haven’t.

We’ve said that we want to increase visitor spending faster than visitor arrivals, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Can that change? Yes. But only if we make substantial changes.

We know who high-spending visitors are — and they’re not just the rich. The meetings, incentive travel, bridal and honeymoon, LGBTQ, golf and other markets are known to be high spenders that are aligned with what Hawaii has to offer. If marketing can be focused on significantly increasing the percentages of these groups in the visitor mix, it can impact real spending.

Many of these markets (certainly golf and bridal/honeymoon) have, in fact, declined or been stable as a percent of total visitors. Changing those dynamics will require significantly more investment.

We haven’t been good about taking our medicine. Chronic problems just seem to continue despite the frustrations they cause. Unlicensed vacation rental units have proliferated because we haven’t figured out how to manage them. Parks and hiking trails are degraded because of increased use.

Homelessness persists as a social blight and impacts visitor areas. Uncontrolled traffic affects neighborhoods like Maunawili when visitors overrun residential streets to visit the falls.

Don’t Cut HTA’s Budget

We’ve addressed similar issues in the past, but only when they’ve become a crisis. The management plan for Hanauma Bay is a good example of how things can improve when we finally take action.

But, we need to be proactive to make the big changes to address these issues. Change is uncomfortable, but change is necessary.

Some have argued that we need to substantially cut tourism budgets in order to stem growth pains. Some in the industry argue that cuts will cause dramatic declines in visitor arrivals.

I believe both arguments are flawed.

If the Hawaii Tourism Authority budget is cut, visitors will continue to arrive in numbers, at least in the short term, because hotels, airlines and others in the private sector will continue to market themselves to fill seats and rooms. The difference will be that the state will no longer be a master of its own tourism destiny.

The state complements private sector marketing by creating a brand to accomplish objectives in a strategic plan. Without that, Hawaii tourism will be defined by an industry that has its own strategic objectives.

Effectively addressing the current issues in Hawaii tourism, in fact, probably requires more investment, not less. We need to invest in marketing that strategically attracts the visitors who contribute to real economic impact.

We need a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to manage Hawaii’s tourism industry.

Strategic marketing can also put a “band aid” on short-term issues by smoothing out seasonal demand and filling in areas that have relatively low visitation and occupancy. Investing to improve and expand festivals and events will enhance the visitor (and resident) experience.

We need to invest in new types of tourism-related business that build on our tourism expertise, exporting the services of engineering, architectural and training firms.

That would increase tourism related revenues without the impact of additional visitors.

Changing Hawaii tourism won’t be easy because tourism is complex and the issues are complicated. We’re at a point that cries out for a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to manage Hawaii’s tourism industry.

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