Denby Fawcett: Hawaii Tourism Needs To Become Smarter - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Hawaii welcomed more than 10,120 travelers Thursday at the launch of the state’s new program that allows visitors with negative tests for COVID-19 to skip quarantine.

Now that travel is slowly coming back, it is time for Hawaii to create a new tourism model for a changed world in travel that will benefit both tourists and the local community.

The World Travel and Tourism Council in its new study for tourism recovery says shutdowns around the world have prompted people to be more reflective about what they want in their lives, including what they expect now from travel. WTTC’s new study released last month is titled “The Future of Travel and Tourism in the Wake of Covid-19.

“From widespread unemployment and anti-racism movements to the restoration of natural habitats and the impact on ecosystems,” WTTC says, “the world has been re-invigorated to tackle social, environmental, and institutional sustainability.”

The heightened awareness is extending to tourism in the craving for safer travel and a need to do more than just seize entertainment opportunities when traveling, but also to be more respectful of the local environments and people.

Watching natural settings bounce back in the absence of people during lockdowns has made many people aware of how much damage has been done to places just by visiting them.

The WTTC report says there is a desire for greener tourism, ecotourism that’s also mindful of the needs of tourism workers in the community that’s visited.

Although it is cynical, there is truth in Machiavelli’s famous quote: “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” The opportunity is here to change the way we do tourism.

Visitors frolic at Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head as a backdrop.

Visitors to Waikiki will still have a stunning view of Diamond Head, as these people did in 2018, but green tours and ecotourism could offer more opportunities in the future.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nobody is eager for a repeat of 2019, when a whopping 10.4 million visitors arrived in Hawaii, frustrating residents by commandeering their favorite beaches and hiking trails, crowding into beloved island eateries and disrupting quiet residential neighborhoods as they cavorted in illegal vacation rentals.

After the economic ravages of the pandemic, travel experts say the same annual influx of 10.4 million tourists will not reoccur for a long time, maybe never, if the state gets real about weaning itself from tourism as its main economic driver.

In the meantime, travel experts internationally as well as in Hawaii are looking at opportunities offered by the coronavirus crisis to remake the travel industry worldwide greener, cleaner, smarter and more responsive to social issues such as economic inequality and environmental degradation.

Longtime Hawaii travel expert Frank Haas is writing his own report to consider how to meet new travel expectations of visitors.

Haas is a former vice president for marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the co-author of the study “Can Hawaii Rise from Covid-19 as a Smart Destination.”

Here’s what travelers will be expecting in the next few years ahead, according to the WTTC report and Haas.

Flexibility And Safety

In the WTTC report, 70% of North American leisure travelers said they would book trips during the pandemic if they were assured there would be no penalty charges if they changed their plans.

Travelers will expect to be offered more flexibility in the uncertainty of the pandemic, a twilight period expected to extend for at least another year, maybe two years.

Almost 70% of the respondents said cleanliness was crucial to their comfort as they traveled.

Intense attention to health and germ avoidance is expected to continue even after a vaccine becomes widely available.

Hand sanitizer in foreground at the entrance of Iolani Palace during COVIV-19 pandemic as Paula Akana explains hew safety protocols and the opening of Iolani Palace with limited weekend hours.

Hand sanitizer is a new and modern fixture at the historic Iolani Palace.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One thing that bodes well for Hawaii, according to the WTTC report, is travelers during the pandemic now want to go to places they already know.

“Traveler preferential behavior has shifted toward the familiar, predictable and trusted, domestic and regional vacations and the outdoors.”

I take that to mean visitors returning to the islands now are here because they feel safe and know they can easily find their way around rather than venturing into more unfamiliar destinations in Europe and Asia.

Add to that the reality that U.S. residents with our country’s high infection rates are still prohibited from traveling to a long list of countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the nations of the European Union and Japan.

The WTTC report says during the pandemic “transparent communication will be ever more important to travelers in spurring demand.”

It says, “Extensive communication and the flow of accurate information between travelers and employees, businesses and suppliers and visitors and local communities will be a leading engine in the recovery of the sector.”

Communications And Technology

That’s where Hawaii is weak. Its communication during the pandemic to both travelers and local residents has been muddled and sometimes non-responsive.

In the days leading up to Thursday’s reopening, tourists and returning residents struggled with confusing information on where to get tested and the different testing requirements for the neighbor islands.

In a newspaper article, freelance writer Erick Bengel wrote about trying unsuccessfully for two days to reach someone by phone at the state’s Hawaii Safe Travels service desk — a desk that promised to return calls the next business day. Nobody ever called him back.

Haas and the WTTC report both emphasize the large role technology will play in the future in making visitors feel safe by offering them touchless travel among other conveniences.

Touchless travel means the use of smart phones to do functions normally required by person-to-person contact.

WTTC says during all the lockdowns, people all over the world became increasingly comfortable and dependent on the internet, learning to use new platforms on their cell phones and computers for many aspects of their lives.

Now they will expect to use technological applications as an important part of travel comfort and safety.

Automation at hotels has been discussed for years but it now may be an idea whose time has come.

Caleb Hartsfield/Civil Beat

They are interested in contactless travel, to avoid infection, using their smart phones to check in at a hotel’s front desk, summon the elevator and to get into their hotel room without having to touch a key.

Phones are also now routinely used for touchless transactions including as airplane boarding passes and while shopping and in restaurants to read menus and pay for meals.

In the WTTC report, almost half (45%) of travelers said they are ready to move from paper passports to a digital identity.

“The pandemic has made contactless technology more important than ever,” says Haas.

The changes were always on the horizon but the pandemic has accelerated their development and use.

WTTC’s researchers say smart technology in every aspect of tourism and travel will necessitate not only increased cyber security but also upgrading the skills of travel and tourism employees to become familiar with the new systems.

WTTC says 68% of the workforce globally will need retraining to keep up to speed with the changing technology.

In the report he is writing, Haas wonders if there should be a new “chief technology officer” at the Hawaii Tourism Authority or the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to focus on the need.

He also sees this as a new opportunity in technology training for travel for the University of Hawaii.

The University of Central Florida is already offering a program of travel technology and analytics.

Haas says the UH could set up its own smart travel program and become a leader in helping other countries meet the new demands for technology applications in tourism.

Executives already helping Hawaii’s blue collar hotel workers increase their skills are concerned that the increasing use of technology in hotels may displace more workers than it advances.

“It is nice to talk about upgrading hotel workers’ technological skills but you can’t discuss that without talking about the jobs that are already becoming obsolete because of technology,” said James Hardway.

Hardway is the executive director of the Hotel and Restaurant Employment Training Trust Fund, funded by Local 5, the hotel workers union, to teach workers new skills and enhance their existing skills.

In the future, technology will also help better manage and spread out crowds by helping visitors to make advanced reservations and pre-payments on-line for many popular attractions.

And future travelers are expected to be more willing to accept new requirements for reservations because they will help them maintain physical distancing.

They may not be able to go to an attraction exactly when they want but at least when they arrive they won’t be smashed up against other people.

And advanced reservations will give local residents a better chance to return to their their favorite places, those they’d started to avoid because of tourist mobs.

This may be overly optimistic but if done with a creative spirit, a new tourism plan to meet the challenges of the pandemic and beyond might make Hawaii better for tourists and residents alike.


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Smarter tourism requires the impossible -- elected officials suddenly becoming smarter.

sleepingdog · 1 month ago

"Nobody is eager for a repeat of 2019, when a whopping 10.4 million visitors arrived in Hawaii, frustrating residents by commandeering their favorite beaches and hiking trails, crowding into beloved island eateries and disrupting quiet residential neighborhoods as they cavorted in illegal vacation rentals."I generally disagree with the author's politics, but I can understand the above sentiment.  Once my family did a 'staycation' on Maui and it was disgusting to see how the tourists (primarily from the mainland) left their garbage everywhere in the very nice hotel, sometimes mere feet from a trash can, and seemed to have so little regard for the fact that local people do actually also live in the area.So I think the general concept is a good one.  The hard part will be finding great people to develop and maintain such a system in a sustainable manner.  Personally I also favor catering moreso, if possible, to the Japanese tourist market.  

pueobeach · 1 month ago

Hawaii state government, and Technology, are not compatible. Technology has taken a backseat in our state government for years now. The money allocated towards upgrading its systems to help out the citizens of this state is pure ineptitude.You have to wonder why technology and communication have taken a back seat to corporate interest and big money.

Scotty_Poppins · 1 month ago

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