When I was growing up in Territorial Hawaii, visitors coming to the islands were a big deal, a much anticipated event in my family as we drove out to the old airport on Lagoon Drive with fresh plumeria lei to greet relatives and friends right at the arrival gates as they walked off their planes.

That kind of aloha is unlikely to ever return: too many tourists. Tourism numbers began to soar after jet travel was launched in 1959 to reach an explosion of 10.4 million arrivals last year — almost eight times more tourists than the 1.4 million people living here.

Local residents became frustrated by tourist rental cars hogging already traffic-clogged roads, and groups of outsiders crowding the beaches and farmers’ markets and commandeering favorite neighborhood eateries.

With COVID-19, there’s a new anger directed at a different visitor target: the scofflaws jumping on planes every day to vacation here, thumbing their noses at Hawaiiʻs 14-day quarantine while the rest of the state dutifully remains in lockdown, at least until May 31.

Visitors to Oahu’s Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head in the background.
Hawaii’s recovery depends on tourism but it will take some convincing to get local residents to welcome tourists back. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii has paid for tickets to send 34 of the quarantine violators home.

“I don’t think residents should vilify all tourists because of these disrespectful and selfish people,” VASH president and CEO Jessica Lani Rich says. “They are a totally different type than most who come here. I am happy to be in a position to send them home.”

I wonder what the state will need to do to get wary local residents on board to welcome tourists back, with some industry officials already jumping at the bit to market Hawaii as “the safest place in the world.”

It is a serious question.

Without tourism there can be no economic recovery in Hawaii and without a welcoming local population, there can be no quality tourism.

Chris Tatum, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, emphasizes the importance of local resident support for the industry.

“The interaction between visitors and the local community has been our biggest plus,” he says.

“I don’t think residents should vilify all tourists because of these disrespectful and selfish people.” – Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii President Jessica Lani Rich

Hawaii Tourism Authority is the state agency responsible for managing and marketing tourism.

Once the state is deemed medically safe for visitor arrivals and for residents to feel safe enough to have outsiders come, Tatum sees a rare opportunity to improve the quality of tourism for visitors as well as reduce its past negative impact on residents.

Tatum grew up on Oahu in Foster Village where he graduated from Radford High School. He lives in Kailua with his family.

As a longtime local resident, he says he totally gets the need for a balance between tourism and the quality of the lives of local residents.

On April 27, he sent a letter to tourism industry leaders saying, “When the time is appropriate we will need to collaborate with the community to develop memorable visitor experiences while respecting the lives of our residents on each island.”

He sees working more closely with county mayors in the future to find out which community groups to meet with and also working with neighborhood boards.

Smaller Scale, Higher Quality

Annette Kaohelaulii, an early promoter of sustainable tourism, says, “We don’t need 10 million tourists here each year. We have to figure out how to do tourism on a smaller scale. Certainly one way is to charge more for hotel rooms, travel and visitor experiences.”

“We need to have more voices deciding how tourism will be managed here in the future,” she says. “It can’t just be the airlines and hotels calling all the shots. And that conversation needs to be starting now.”

Kaohelaulii founded the Hawaii Ecotourism Association 16 years ago to protect Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources. The organization now is called Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii.

visitors hike on the Pillbox Hike overlooking the Mokulua Islands and Lanikai.
Visitors already like the Pillbox trail overlooking the Mokulua Islands and Lanikai. In a new tourism model, hikers could be limited and a fee imposed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

HTA’s Tatum believes that tourism arrivals skyrocketed in recent years because of the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals. That can be better managed if new laws prohibiting illegal rentals are properly enforced, he said.

He points to the North Shore Kauai residents as a model. On their own after the 2018 floods they came up with a new system requiring advanced reservations and permits for a limit of 100 parking places for visitors to enter Haena State Park.

“Visitors to Haena went from 3,000 a day to about 500,” Tatum says. “You can imagine how that improved the quality of what they experienced and lessened the impacts on local residents.”

Tatum said the HTA has set aside $500,000 for a pilot project to put a person at each of the most popular attractions including the Diamond Head trail, Lanikai Pill Box trail and the Manoa Falls trail on Oahu, and Waipio Valley on Hawaii island to help visitors understand the history and culture of the areas they are entering. But the project hasn’t started yet.

“Most visitors want to do the right thing. If they know the meaning of what they are seeing, they are going to be respectful. It will be a more valuable experience,” he says.

He looks forward to an ideal situation of fewer people coming to Hawaii post-COVID-19 but willing to pay more money for quality experiences with the state capturing as much revenue from tourism as it did in the past.

Last year, total visitor spending was $17.75 billion, total jobs supported by tourism was 216,000, and taxes generated by visitors amounted to $2.07 billion.

Tatum says HTA will not be running a media campaign to convince local residents to get on board for a return of tourism. Instead, the organization will try to gain support by demonstrating its intention to improve quality.

“By our actions we as an industry have to show when we bring business back it will be in a thoughtful way,” Tatum says. “We have to show we are serious. We have a great opportunity now.”

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