I graduated from high school the year jet travel was launched in Hawaii. We watched over the years as tourism morphed from a pleasant interlude in our mostly uneventful territorial lives to an unregulated curse of overcrowding, traffic and thousands of illegal vacation rentals transforming quiet residential neighborhoods into mini-hotel zones.
Now that COVID-19 has all but eradicated the tourism industry, at least for now, there’s breathing room to consider how to do a better job of managing Hawaii as a visitor destination in the future.
My friend Susan O’Connor, who also grew up in Territorial Hawaii, looks at it this way: “We have lived through the creation of this play. Let’s see if the ending can be changed.”
One way the ending can be changed is to follow the lead of other tourist destinations now inventing and using smart technology for better management and stewardship of their resources.
Technology can be used to influence where tourists go each day and help them make advance reservations and pre-pay to get into popular destinations. Also to restrict how many can get into the crowded attractions at any time.
That’s the focus of a new essay on the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization’s website by Frank Haas and James Mak, “Can Hawaii Rise from the Ashes of Covid 19 as a Smart Destination?”
Smart meaning better use of information technology, phone apps, social media and GPS to monitor and manage tourism.
Haas is a longtime tourism consultant and former vice president for marketing at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and Mak is a University of Hawaii professor emeritus of economics.
In a phone interview, Haas said that residents’ pleas to limit the number of tourists will not solve the problem of overcrowding that was in full swing before the COVID-19 shutdown and angering locals and visitors alike.
Haas and Mak write in their essay ”the problem isn’t so much that Hawaii has ten million visitors but that we have a few hundred people congregating in a site that can only accommodate a handful.
“Or too many cars on a two-lane road that wasn’t designed for high volume traffic.”
The authors point out that even with a lower volume of visitors, the travelers will still flock to the same popular destinations and continue to use GPS and social media to find local favorite spots and secluded beaches previously unknown to tourists.
Haas says the same technology tourists are using to find popular local beaches and hiking trails can also be used to reduce overcrowding.
He points to Amsterdam, which makes available an app for tourists that tells them when an attraction is overcrowded and suggests alternatives.
Other cities such as London use a similar app to reward tourists with coupons and discounted admissions when they go to less popular but no less interesting alternative sites.
The goal is to spread out the visitors instead of having them funneled into a few crowded spots.
London also uses technology to reduce congestion on the roads into the city on busy days by charging a higher fee to drivers. That congestion charge has been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Hawaii, an app could impose a charge on tourists’ rental car bills if they drive on popular routes during crowded times, such as on Kamehameha Highway to the Oahu’s North Shore or from Kapaa to Hanalei on Kauai’s crowded two-lane road that has exasperated many tourists and local residents forced to sit in traffic.
Haas say Hawaii is very far behind other destinations in the use of smart technology for destination management.
Another option is to require advanced reservations and pre-payment to get into some of the state’s more heavily used attractions, such as the Diamond Head summit trail, which gets an average of 3,500 visitors a day.
The road into the crater is a crush every morning, with cars and buses lined up and waiting for the 6 a.m. opening.
Many visitors and local residents are turned away and have to find parking outside in nearby neighborhoods or wait patiently in long lines until a parking space frees up.
The road in for pedestrians is through a dangerously crowded, narrow tunnel that pedestrians share with wide trolley cars and large tour buses.
Haas says the dollar-per-person fee to get into the crater — the same for the last 20 years — is much too low, and should be as high as $20.
By comparison, he points out that Honolulu’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve charges $7.50 per adult visitor and many national parks charge $15 or more per person.
The money could be used to provide a higher-quality experience at Diamond Head — an attraction now struggling with only three very hard working and dedicated employees inside the crater, responsible for running the whole show.
Other trails such as Maunawili Falls and Koko Crater could institute similar requirements for reservations and prepayment.
After it is deemed safe for visitors to return to Hawaii, they are expected to return in much smaller numbers than before, with many people on the mainland and Asia still too worried about the virus to get on an airplane.
Haas says with fewer visitors coming to Hawaii, the industry will need more than ever to ensure the travelers who are coming are big spenders. Smart technology can help find these so-called “value tourists” through data-mining and analysis, allowing marketing messages to be tailored to them.
High spenders before the shutdown were wedding groups, golfers, business travelers and food lovers who stay in hotels and dine nightly at expensive restaurants.
Smart technology is already providing a key role in monitoring the visitors sent into the mandatory 14-day quarantine and tracing people who have had contact with coronavirus-infected people.
It is time to look at the same technology that made it easier for tourists to take over residential neighborhoods by crowding into illegal vacation rentals and overrunning popular hiking trails to instead better manage where the visitors go and when, and make them prepay fair admission prices for the wear and tear they inflict on Hawaii’s scenic treasures.
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