LIHUE, Kauai — Hawaii has released a new blueprint for redefining tourism in the post-COVID-19 era by mitigating community concerns over traffic and overcrowding on Kauai while maintaining the benefits from the state’s dominant industry.

It could dramatically alter the visitor experience on the Garden Island, but the head of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce stressed the need for airlines to be part of the solution by limiting the number of seats sold on flights.

The “Kauai Destination Management Action Plan” is the first in a series of publications published by the Hawaii Tourism Authority that will consider tourism issues on each island in the state individually.

Kauai was first in line because it has had the lowest number of COVID-19 cases among the five counties, and its perceived safety from the disease makes the county’s tourism needs unique, according to the new analysis.

The plan for Maui County was supposed to be completed at the same time as Kauai’s, but the process was delayed by an inability to organize community input meetings on Lanai after a spike in coronavirus cases last year, HTA spokeswoman Marisa Yamane said.

HTA was working to finalize the plan for Maui, including Molokai and Lanai, she said, adding that “the Hawaii island process is well underway, and Oahu’s process is expected to begin in March.”

The study’s stated purpose is to “rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism” in Hawaii as the state begins to emerge from the pandemic, which effectively shut down the tourism industry last spring.

However, many were skeptical that the wide array of goals could be achieved in just three years.

“There’s a lot of ambition in the plans that is not shorter than a 10-year plan. It’s a long road,” said Ben Sullivan, energy and sustainability coordinator for the Kauai Office of Economic Development.

Kauai is a popular destination for its beautiful scenery, but officials want to promote responsible tourism. Flickr: Marc Tarlock

The plan stressed the effects of the pandemic on the tourist industry, which generated $17.75 billion in revenue in 2019 — the year before the pandemic broke out. The boom “put pressure on some of our destinations and communities,” according to the report.

A key objective is developing “regenerative tourism,” which is the idea that visitors leave a place better than it was before.

As vaccines raise hopes the industry can be put on the road to recovery, the report said, “tourism needs to be managed responsibly so that the residents and destination may thrive.” The tone is very different from many previous HTA marketing documents.

Fred Atkins, head of Kauai Kilohana Partners, which operates a well-known restaurant and tourist center here, said the recent arrival of John De Fries as HTA’s new president and CEO has enhanced the agency’s credibility after many years of criticism that it was focused exclusively on marketing travel to the islands.

“We need to keep the lines of communication open and try to find some kind of balance,” Atkins said. “Our tourism numbers are not gonna come back overnight. They’re just not. Kauai is unique. We’re kind of separated from the other islands, so it’s a lot more challenging.”

Kauai has fiercely guarded the health of its residents, opting out of the statewide Safe Travels program that allowed trans-Pacific visitors to bypass a 10-day quarantine if they test negative for the virus within 72 hours of their departure flight.

“As a Hawaiian cultural value, ‘malama’ is a verb and it requires all of us to be mindful in taking responsible action to ensure that the future of Kauai is sustainable,” De Fries said in a prepared statement.

Before COVID-19, Kauai had an average of 27,695 visitors on the island on any given day — a figure that dropped 69.7% to 8,367, the HTA said.

Kauai’s destination management plan calls for action in several general areas: Managing the number of visitors, better enforcement of laws that protect the environment, resolving transportation and infrastructure issues, educating visitors and residents, and improving support for local businesses.

It lists several recommendations:

— Imposing user fees on heavily visited sites, an approach that has proved surprisingly successful in the redevelopment of Haena State Park at the very end of Kuhio Highway on the North Shore.

— Specifying limits on the number of people who can visit tourist sites at one time, setting aside “rest days” for places that may be at risk of environmental damage and piloting an islandwide reservation system for high-profile destinations.

— Improving management of “illegal users” of tourist facilities  and encouraging residents to report violations using a special computer app, as well as increasing ranger presence and enforcement at state and county parks.

— Working with hotels to develop cultural and history classes so guests better understand Kauai’s traditions and practices.

— Working with car rental companies to encourage increased use of electric vehicles and identifying more alternative transportation options, with an emphasis on shuttles and short-term rentals from fleets based at hotels.

— Supporting and preserving Kauai’s agriculture industry with “value-added products and agritourism.”

Hanapepe Kauai Fault Lines Swinging Bridge River
The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge is the main visitor attraction in old Hanapepe town in Kauai. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

“There are some really good things in there,” said Sabra Kauka, a prominent Kauai cultural practitioner who served on the plan’s steering committee. “We need, again, to protect our natural resources and emphasize cultural education.”

The report also urged greater efforts to protect “tourism hot spots” like Polihale State Park, Kokee and Waimea Canyon, the North Shore from Hanalei to Kee Beach, Poipu, Queen’s Bath and Wailua River State Park.

Mark Periello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, praised the HTA for “leading the way in promoting responsible tourism.”

He also called on airlines to follow the agency’s lead by prioritizing “the long-term sustainability of tourism on the island over quick profits and filling seats.”

There have been repeated calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to cap the number of seats sold to Hawaii or for the state to step in, due to concern about the capacity of the islands to absorb past high numbers.

The FAA has responded that state and local governments are precluded under federal law from limiting passenger numbers.

Marie Williams of the Kauai County Planning Department said she was pleased the blueprint was limited in scope.

“We’re looking at what might be done within the next three to five years. These next few years will be a critical period,” she said.

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