By Jen Murphy: Bloomberg: December 30, 2021
A more sustainable, less colonial experience awaits.
John De Fries still recalls fishing the waters off Waikiki Beach in Oahu as a kid in the 1960s. “Growing up, my family fishing grounds were a source of food first and recreation second,” he says. “Today they’re a playground surrounded by hotels.”
Born and raised in Waikiki, De Fries was appointed president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority in Sept. 2020, when coronavirus shutdowns had the state’s economy reeling but the community and environment thriving. In 2019, the state of 1.5 million people hosted a record 10.4 million visitors—unsustainable figures that had residents feeling sour. Though tourism netted $2.07 billion in tax revenue that year, Hawaiians lamented its effects on traffic, beaches, and the cost of living.
For locals, the quietude of 2020 “was somewhat euphoric,” says De Fries. “It felt like we got our islands back.”
But that wasn’t sustainable either. Nor was the boom that happened in July, when visitor arrivals exceeded their 2019 level by 21% despite strict Covid-19 testing protocols, mask mandates, capacity restrictions, and staff shortages. That, says De Fries, “was like putting 220 volts of electricity through a 110-volt circuit.” Rental cars became so scarce that U-Hauls were found in beach parking lots; resorts jacked up rates, with average stays at hotels in Maui of $596 a night in August; new taxes were sought; and vacation-starved visitors didn’t flinch.
What comes next is a radically transformed experience for visitors—and locals—hopefully, in a good way. For the first time, Hawaii’s tourism authority is majority-run by Hawaiian natives, rather than white mainlanders with hospitality degrees. With the input of locals, who range from farmers to hotel owners, each of Hawaii’s four counties has created a strategic plan that stretches into 2025 and focuses on sustainable destination management rather than marketing.
The plan relies heavily on community involvement and visitor education. “In the past, visitors were spoon-fed what outsiders thought they wanted,” says Kainoa Horcajo, founder of the Mo'olelo Group, a Maui-based consultancy that helps hotels to reimagine their cultural experiences. “Now, it’s time to take a risk, challenge the visitor, and give them something real.”
Here are the ways your experience of the state might change in the near future, and possibly forever.
You’ll Need a Reservation to Visit Popular Natural Attractions
Want to see the black sand beach at Wai'anapanapa State Park in Maui or cross the Kauai’s Kalalau Trail off your bucket list? You’ll now have to make a reservation anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days in advance, depending on the site and season.
The new system, which covers roughly a dozen of Hawaii’s most visited parks, is meant to curb traffic in local communities and tread more lightly on natural resources. Parking and entry fees for non-residents, which can cost from $5 to $15 per person, will also help to better maintain the sites.
Take Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Oahu, a marine area that had been seeing 3,000 daily visitors before the pandemic. New measures there caps entries at 720 visitors a day and hikes fees from $5 to $25 for non-residents. Before entering the water, everyone is required to watch a 9-minute educational video that talks about coral regeneration and marine life, and the park is closed two days a week to let the ecosystem rest.
Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Outrigger Hospitality Group, which operates nearly two dozen properties across Hawaii, calls this the future of sustainable tourism. “The water is cleaner, visitors are educated, and the revenues help manage the bay,” he says. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
You’ll Have to Get a Crash Course on Being a Good Tourist
The informational video at Hanauma Bay is just one example of how the state is trying to stoke cultural and environmental awareness among visitors. This September, Hawaiian Airlines started airing a five-minute video reminding guests to only use reef-safe sunscreen, keep distance from endangered animals such as monk seals, and be cautious of rip currents and shore breaks in the ocean.
Meanwhile Jon Benson, the general manager at the Hyatt-managed Hana-Maui Resort, has removed all of such former amenities as towels and lounge service at nearby Hamoa Beach, home to a sacred Hawaiian burial place. He’ll reinstate them only if the site can be properly honored with guidance from local kupuna, or elders, he says.
“Guests complain,” Benson admits. “But when I explain why the services are on hold, they begin to understand the land around them isn’t just for photos and enjoyment. It has deep cultural significance. It’s our responsibility to educate them.”
You May Be Charged a Conservation Fee on Arrival
Currently Oahu is lobbying for the establishment of a regenerative tourism fee that would apply to all arriving tourists and directly support conservation and environmental management programs. The state seems keen on approval, given that it cannot spend more than 1% of its annual operating budget on natural resource management.
Expect this to look a bit like the $100 fees that are charged upon port entry in the Galápagos, or embedded into airfares to the tiny Pacific island-nation of Palau. (In the latter destination, it’s called a “Pristine Paradise Environmental fee.”) The government is looking at both examples to model what soon may come.
You’ll See a Less Colonial Version of Hawaiian Culture
In the past, tourism fed into the stories marketing executives thought White people wanted to hear, says Clifford Nae'ole, cultural adviser for the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, and former president of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association. Hawaiian food was pineapple pizza and spam; a luau was just about girls dancing in grass skirts. Now, chefs are proudly incorporating native Hawaiian ingredients such as ulu, or breadfruit, into dishes, and luaus have become historical lessons about the Polynesian migration to Hawaii just as much as they are entertainment.
Those luaus, for instance, won’t include grass skirts—a costume that was introduced by 19th century missionaries as a more modest alternative to traditional skirts and lioncloths made of kapa, or bark cloth. “Now when kumu [hula teachers] are told costumes are too revealing, they push back and say this is the traditional dress,” Nae'ole says.
You’ll also see this change when you receive a lei upon arrival. Now they will be made from locally grown flowers instead of orchids, which are imported from Southeast Asia at high financial and environmental costs and have been used for decades only because White mainlanders found them pleasing.
At the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, local florist Lauren Shearer, owner of Hawaii Flora + Fauna, teaches visitors how to make the garlands from foraged native fauna such as blue jade, crown flower, and ferns. “Ancestors didn’t just use lei for personal adornment,” says Shearer. “They were also used for peace treaties and to establish hierarchies.”
Other cliches are also being rejected. The newly renovated Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort on Oahu, for instance, shines a spotlight on modern Hawaiian music, not just traditional ukulele, hosting such award-winning slack key guitarists as Sean Na'auao nightly. And at the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria property on Maui, cultural ambassador Kalei 'Uwēko'olani goes beyond offering outrigger canoe paddles and brings in storytellers such as navigator Kala Baybayan Tanaka to share tales of her father’s historic, technology-free Hokulea canoe crossing from Hawaii to Tahiti.
You’ll Be Encouraged to Give Back
Last November, the Hawaii Tourism Authority launched a campaign in conjunction with Hawaii Tourism USA (formerly the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau) to introduce the concept of malama, or caring for the land. “Everyone relates to aloha,” says De Fries. “Malama is emerging as its sister value.”
“We’ll always have tourists who come to sip mai tais by the pool, but programs like malama are helping us target a more mindful traveler,” says Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer with the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Since its initiation, the program has grown from having 16 hotel and airline partners to today’s 110, which have all committed to rewarding guests with a free night’s stay if they spend a day helping to clean beaches or reforest land.
Teraj Allen, a 36-year-old recording artist from New York, and his partner, Barry Hoy, 42, recently made their first trip to Hawaii and spent a day planting trees on Kauai with the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative to partake in malama. “In my head, I thought we were going to a beach destination, and one of the highlights was this experience,” says Allen. “It felt special to be able to leave a legacy.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.