Halfway through its plan for ‘regenerative tourism’, Hawaii can get more revenue from tourism despite fewer tourists

Popular touristic destination for its wildlife and natural landscape, Hawaii promotes a form of “regenerative tourism” which seems compatible with revenue growth for 2022. But it doesn’t mean the State wants to reduce tourism activity for the sake of nature conservation.

Beach at Hāʻena State Park on the island of Kauai
Beach at Hāʻena State Park on the island of Kauai. New access to park and entrance fees help manage attendance in the park | © Department of Land and Natural Resources

The State of Hawaii is about halfway into its plans to boost the local tourism industry into regenerative tourism. So far from January to September 2022, tourists brought more revenue compared to levels during the same period before the COVID-19 pandemic despite fewer tourists.

The Hawaiian islands are recognized for their beautiful natural landscape, so much so that they welcomed a record-high number of 10.4 million visitors in 2019. This brought almost 18 billion dollars to local businesses, generated more than 2 billion dollars in tax and supported 216,000 jobs across the archipelago.

But the Hawaii Tourism Authority noted in 2021 this tourism also “put pressure on our destinations and communities,” pointing out the “negative effect of tourism, which not only impacts residents’ quality of life but also the quality of the visitor experience.”

As such, the tourism board released in March-April 2021 its Destination Management Action Plans that aim to “rebuild, redefine and reset” tourism within three years. It wanted to attract and educate responsible visitors, involve local communities more, avoid overcrowded attractions and promote the concept of regenerative tourism in the State of Hawaii. The pandemic played a role in this new vision.

Regenerative tourism gained momentum in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic according to the tourism state agency and goes further than the concept of sustainable tourism that focused on reducing the harm of tourism. With regenerative tourism, tourists have a positive impact on the environment they visit.

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,” according to Anna Pollock, international tourism consultant and founder of Conscious Travel.

To do so, the State of Hawaii has been promoting the conservation of its natural resources with marketing and communication investment, resumed partnerships with non-profits and accelerated the implementation of entrance fees at a number of natural sites to get more funds and manage the flow of visitors.

It first started before the COVID-19 pandemic and regenerative tourism plans. After historic floods in 2018, much of the north shore of Ha’ena State Park on the island of Kaua’i was closed for a year and a half. But a redesign of the access to the park and implementation of a reservation system now allow capping visitors for Hāʻena and Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Parks at 900 a day compared to more than 2,000 before the flood.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Land and Natural Resources even increased fees for eight of the fifty state parks in the Hawaiian islands hoping to compensate for the loss of visitors. Out-of-State park visitors now pay 10 dollars per vehicle and 5 dollars for walk-ins, instead of the 5 dollars per vehicle and 1 dollar for walk-in visitors.

More revenue in January-September 2022 than in 2019 despite fewer tourists

Diamond Head State Monument hike in Honolulu
Diamond Head State Monument hike in Honolulu. Since May 2022, people need to pay to access to the park | © Hawaii State Parks

Many of the 50 State parks are free but reservation systems and entrance fees have been extended to more sites. It has for instance been put in place since May 2022 at Diamond Head, a volcanic crater in Honolulu and one of the most popular parks in the state. An entry fee of 1 dollar per walk-in tourist and 5 dollars per vehicle applies.

Tourism is the primary economic driver of the archipelago and grew for eight consecutive years until the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, tourism was more than 16 percent of the State’s gross domestic product. But conservation of its environment can also be crucial for the Hawaiian economy as a lot of its tourism depends on the islands’ natural landscape and resources.

Ninety percent of the 1,000 living species found in Hawaii’s parks are endemic to the archipelago. And because of climate change, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2016 that Hawaii’s coral reef habitats could decrease by as much as 40 percent by 2100.

Nevertheless, the more widespread use of reservation systems and entrance fees doesn’t seem to have negatively affected the tourism industry in 2022 after two difficult years.

From January to September 2022, total visitor spending grew almost 8 percent compared to the first nine months of 2019 despite a 12 percent reduction in tourist arrivals. It was compensated by the higher average daily visitor spending (+26 percent). “Every visitor in Hawaii spends about 2,100 dollars per trip while staying in our islands,” according to Mike McCartney, director in the Department of business, economic development and tourism.

However, although education on conservation seems to be going well, according to the latest updates of the destination management plans, getting adequate financial resources still remains a big question. “We know that natural resource conservation is chronically underfunded here in Hawaii and yet is so important to us,” said Ilihia Gionson from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to KITV.

A bill that should have provided more funding for the protection of natural environment died during the last legislature and there are some concerns about a potential tax on tourists who arrive in the islands, according to Paul Drewes, a journalist at KITV.

Nevertheless, if regenerative tourism is about involving people in the conservation of natural resources, the Hawaiian vision is not really about reducing the number of visitors. The tourism board still plans on recovering the level of tourist arrivals of 2019 by 2025.

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