The state’s tourist board is on the verge of dissolution, and with it, the state’s helpful policies for regulating visitor numbers at Hawaii’s most revered landmarks.
Hawaii’s tourism board launched a groundbreaking initiative in 2021 with the goal of incorporating genuine Native Hawaiian culture into all facets of the state’s visitor sector in order to safeguard the state’s most vulnerable towns and landmarks and enrich the vacation experience for visitors. In just three short years, the “Malama Hawaii” or “Care for Hawaii” project to promote environmentally responsible tourism appears to be on the decline.
Legislators in Hawaii have proposed a state tourism budget measure that would provide no funding for the state’s 25-year-old tourism bureau ahead of the popular summer travel season that begins on July 1. Furthermore, at the end of April, legislators discussed two bills to abolish the Hawaii Tourism Authority and replace it with a body whose primary function would be resource management rather than tourism promotion.
Although the bill was postponed and HTA is still operational, numerous experts Bloomberg spoke with believe that excluding the agency from the final budget will severely limit its ability to manage tourism on the islands.
Without funding, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s (HTA) destination management, visitor education, and brand marketing efforts will suffer, according to an article written by HTA CEO John De Fries and published in the organization’s newsletter. He indicated that the HTA will be “making tough decisions in the coming days” regarding the termination of current contracts and “ongoing community work.”
The HTA sought $50 million for the upcoming fiscal year, and lawmakers have suggested that half of that amount can be found in unused monies from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
All of this threatens the very existence of the cultural events, festivals, and community-led volunteer opportunities that have made Hawaii such a popular tourist destination in recent years, as well as the effectiveness of the new crowd-control measures designed to safeguard the state’s most vulnerable sites.
Concerns Over Tourism
Legislators and the Hawaii Tourism Authority have had a tense relationship in the past. In 2019, Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents saw the state become a case study in overtourism as 10.4 million visitors flooded the islands each year. Negative outcomes of this unchecked industry include trash on famous landmarks, overcrowded beaches where it’s impossible to find a towel, coral reefs dying from bleaching, traffic jams caused by tourists taking selfies, and vandalism of religious sites.
Many state and non-state residents of Hawaii felt that HTA had become a victim of its own promotional success. For that reason, HTA embarked on a comprehensive redesign.
The agency’s leadership, which had previously been dominated by white executives, has been nearly totally replaced by Indigenous Hawaiians, and its mission has shifted to focus on ensuring that tourism benefits all locals and visitors alike.
The “Malama Hawaii” movement gained traction. Through sustainable experiences and ethical messaging, it raised awareness of the delicate nature of Hawaii’s natural wonders and sacred sites among tourists. In addition to dispersing foot traffic, this helped lessen the negative effects of tourism on the local environment.
As a result, the state expects to collect a record $1 billion in hotel bed taxes in 2023, as richer, higher-spending tourists are drawn there. These visitors were pleased to participate in community-organized educational opportunities like beach cleanups on Kauai, visits to a chocolate factory on Oahu, and cultural walks in Waikiki.
Some Hawaiian lawmakers thought the rate of improvement was unacceptable. Since then, state clearance has been mandated for contract awards and annual budgets from the tourism office, and the office’s direct stream of revenue from hotel taxes has been severed.
“The legislature didn’t think [the change] was going fast enough,” says Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management Inc. and a consultant for the HTA’s 2020-25 strategy plan for sustainable tourism growth.
Travel management professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Mondy Jamshidi-Kent, claims that certain legislators had been set on disbanding the HTA for at least five years, well before De Fries could begin his work on the issue.
As an example, she says, “I’m disappointed to have learned that they don’t incorporate the last three years of statistically measured improvement,” implying that the current talks are motivated more by emotion than evidence. As one expert put it, “this is a disturbing threat to our democratic process.”
Jamshidi-Kent theorises that certain members of the government may have felt threatened by this “new way of tourism,” which puts Hawaiian culture at the heart of corporate operations and adds levels of actual accountability. Why the legislature would want to change something that is already functioning is beyond me.
The Roots of Persistence
HTA had made significant advancements in a relatively short time frame. In a poll conducted in the fourth quarter of 2022, over a quarter of mainland US tourists to Hawaii said they had seen messages encouraging them to “care for and respect Hawaii’s culture, people, and environment” before and during their trip.
With an eye towards sustainability, more and more state parks are instituting reservation systems for out-of-state visitors. On May 1, the 4,000-acre ‘ao Valley State Monument on Maui became the fourth state park to do so. Together with Travel2change, the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHAA) has increased the number of community-run volunteer opportunities for tourists from 30 to roughly 70 through HTA-funded pilot programmes.
According to Mlia Sanders, director of NaHAA, all of this contributed to a more positive attitude towards tourism among locals. Nearly half of the 1,949 Hawaii residents polled statewide for the survey in the autumn of 2022 said they thought tourism was being better managed than it had been in the past; however, the percentage who said their own island was being run for tourists at the expense of residents remained relatively constant.
The Next Steps
Some have advocated for HTA’s dissolution in favour of establishing a new type of tourism office whose mission is sustainable management of tourism rather than marketing to visitors. The setup process is lengthy and expensive.
Events like the Hawaii Book and Music Festival on Oahu, which celebrates Hawaiian heritage and cultures through storytelling and song, the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, the Maui Ukulele Festival, and the Big Island Chocolate Festival, all of which are sponsored by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), are in jeopardy. These celebrations help promote Hawaiian artists and culture, which in turn benefits both tourists and locals.
In the next three to six months, many of these programmes will likely be terminated unless Governor Josh Greene vetoes the proposed state budget. To take all of it away is terrible,” says Sanders of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. The reservation systems and crowd control methods that protect some of Hawaii’s most precious natural areas from the negative effects of mass tourism would also be jeopardised.
Haas, an expert in tourism marketing, suggests reorganising the HTA and giving it the capacity to collaborate with other government organisations like the Department of Land and Natural Resources. There may not be enough goodwill for such a drastic reorganisation.
Sanders says that future agencies should make outreach a priority. In its absence, she wonders, “How do we attract the right kind of visitor that is willing to be educated while they are here—willing to contribute and be a part of social change?”
Jamshidi-Kent is in accord. She goes on to argue that marketing is what separates businesses who tell tourists “Hey, come to Hawaii, lay on the beach, have a Mai Tai,” from those that say “Hey, we would love for you to come, but remember this is our home.” You are responsible for maintaining the property.