Lee Cataluna: What Slow Recovery To Tourism? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Remember when people were talking about taking this opportunity to rethink tourism?

Yeah, I said it too. That idea turned out to be so naive as to be laughable.

The thought of scaling down tourism to a manageable level that will restore calm to neighborhoods, sanity to roads and access to beaches assumes that tourism is under Hawaii’s control. It clearly is not.

There has been no slow reopening to tourism. It’s been more like a dam of pent-up demand breaking and flooding all the quiet surf spots and uncrowded trails. All of a sudden, Maui beaches are overrun, rental cars are hard to come by and swarms of tourists are queueing up to buy cartloads of groceries in neighborhood markets to stock the kitchens of their vacation rentals. 

There didn’t need to be a marketing campaign. There didn’t need to be special deals on airfare-and-hotel room packages. There didn’t need to be trade shows.

Turns out there’s an insatiable thirst for Hawaii and nobody has to be convinced to come here. Despite the hit the American economy took during the pandemic, people still have the money to fly across the ocean, buy margarita mix at Foodland and spread out their beach chairs on the sand at Kaanapali. 

Controlling, managing, or resetting tourism is about as possible as resetting Kilauea volcano. Sure, would be nice to train the lava to erupt on a schedule and only in convenient areas, but it is not going to happen. Tourism is much less awe-inspiring, but is also an untamable force. It spreads across the land, going where it wants to go, unconfined by fences and signs or “education campaigns.”

We can only react. The choices are only to move out of the way, be run over, or try to profit from it even as it destroys so many things in its path.

There were serious concerns that tourism would be slow to rebound even after vaccine distribution was underway. Boy were those worries misplaced. They’re practically beating down the door.

Waikiki Beach with more visitors arriving every day on Oahu during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More visitors are arriving every day at Waikiki Beach and other locations around Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The situation is all the more dramatic because of the months of relative quiet Hawaii residents savored during the months of travel restrictions. That was really nice.

So what can be done?  The Hawaii Tourism Authority recently published a Tourism Management Plan that discusses “regenerative tourism” as a new model for the visitor industry in Hawaii. 

The introduction to the report says: 

“About 15 years ago, the model for ‘sustainable tourism’ was instituted, build on tourism that was environmentally friendly, culturally sensitive and had less impact than high numbers of visitors …

“Regenerative tourism takes sustainability one step further and focuses on the net benefit of the visitor economy to a destination, looking at social and cultural benefits and costs. Regenerative tourism is bolder and more inspiring. It aims not just to do less harm, but to go on and restore the harm that our system has already done to the natural world, and by using nature’s principles, to create the conditions of life to flourish. It views wholes and not parts, and it a very different way of looking at the world.” 

What does that even mean? Certainly not restoring some coastlines by decommissioning hotels. Certainly not shutting down businesses that take vans full of visitors into little neighborhoods and off-road restricted areas. Certainly not anything that would mean people who are making money from tourism would have to make less money. 

The HTA 2020-2025 Strategic Plan defined “Destination Management” to include such actionable items as:

Develop and implement a coordinated marketing and branding plan that defines and amplifies regenerative tourism.

Review and enhance the goHawaii app to include more island-specific features such a real time information, road closures, events, local etiquette, resource protections in areas that are off-limits.

Continue public service announcements about being a responsible visitor on incoming flights and at airports. 

Explore the capacity limits at hot spots through science-based data. Continue educating the community and visitors about the importance of limiting numbers to ensure hot spots can be sustained and thrive.

Pilot a reservation system to support a sustainable capacity of visitors and explore the feasibility of expanding capabilities.

Which all sounds earnest and sincere, but about as effective as suggesting that kids don’t run in the hall when the recess bell rings. 

That HTA is talking about managing tourism’s ill effects on Hawaii’s environment and residents’ lives is a huge change in terms of the agency’s purpose. It speaks to just how bad over-tourism had gotten.

But unfortunately, neither the HTA nor any other entity has power over tourism anymore. It is a force at the door, a river cresting its banks, a great wave crashing and crashing. Ride it or be pulled under, but we can no longer pretend we can stop, undo or manage the damage. 

Read this next:

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

I don't like to admit it, but the thought has been knocking on the back of my consciousness for a while now. Maybe all those folks who gave up on Hawai'i and moved to Oregon and Vegas were onto something - maybe things have really gone past the point of no return. The sad part is that it's not just Hawai'i but pretty much everywhere desirable...Just consider how sad it is that many of us pine for those early days of the pandemic. I'll never forget how wonderful last summer was when I went to Kailua beach and it was crowded - with happy locals from all over Hawai'i. It felt like the old days again. 

Vagobond · 9 months ago

On Oahu, we have problem with certain tourist spots getting crowded, because there are so many restrictions on where commercial tour companies can go, so that only leaves a few certain places where they can legally go.  Tour companies are banned from 10 miles of the East side, from Makapu'u to Castle Point, and 2 years ago they tried to ban them from 8 miles of the North Shore.  Tour companies aren't allowed to go to any of the State Parks like Ka'ena Point, Malaekahana beach, Tantalus lookout, Ka'iwi State Shoreline, etc.  Even with a permit from DLNR, they are only allowed on 7 hiking trails.  They aren't allowed at 2 of the 4 botanical gardens run by the City.  So, with all these restrictions, we are just encouraging people to get rental cars and going to these places on their own without a local guide, and I don't have to tell you what happens next.  Nobody listens to Turtle.

quarkcsj · 9 months ago

Today, The 7-day average for Arrivals to Hawaii is 16,978 people per day.For the same period in 2019, it was 30,692 people per day.This is down 44.7% from 2019, or just 55.3% of what it was in 2019.In 2020, it was 433 people per day.

quarkcsj · 9 months ago

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