In Hawaii, reimagining tourism for a post-pandemic world

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In Hawaii, reimagining tourism for a post-pandemic world
The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, March 3, 2021. In Hawaii and other tourist-heavy destinations around the world, the screeching halt in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic provided a moment to reimagine and reconfigure tourism. Marco Garcia/The New York Times.

by Tariro Mzezewa

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For a visitor who was on the island of Oahu in 2019 when a record 10.4 million people visited Hawaii, returning to Honolulu nearly a year after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic is breathtaking.

At Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, souvenir shops and nearly all food vendors have closed. In neighborhoods around the state’s capital, restaurants and bars, tour operators and travel agencies have shuttered permanently, and many that remain appear to be shells of the popular jaunts they were before the pandemic. Hotels with skeleton staffs. No tourist-filled buses blocking the entrances to attractions. Plenty of room to move on sidewalks without bumping shoulders.

Meanwhile, the state continues to solidify its reopening procedures for travelers from the mainland and international destinations as well as between the islands.

And yet, according to one survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the agency charged with promoting Hawaii around the world, about two-thirds of Hawaiians say they still do not want tourists to return to the islands.

“Before the pandemic, tourism was at this point where everything was about tourists,” said Lindsey Ozawa, a farmer and chef in He’eia on Oahu. “Tourism had become extractive and hurtful, with tourists coming here and taking, taking, taking, taking, without any reciprocation with locals.”

Ozawa’s frustrations are felt by people beyond the Pacific, in popular destinations like Machu Picchu, Venice, Barcelona and Iceland, where residents bemoan inconsiderate travelers, damage to natural resources, overcrowding and the rising cost of housing because of short-term rentals created for tourists.

In those places, as in Hawaii, the screeching halt in travel after the World Health Organization’s March 11, 2020, declaration of a pandemic provided a moment to re-imagine and reconfigure tourism. Without visitors running amok, institutions, government agencies and individuals who work in the travel industry or are touched by it have been searching for ways to change a sector that many describe as a necessary evil or an addictive drug from which destinations need to wean themselves.

In September, representatives of 22 European cities, including Berlin, Bologna and Prague, met with a European Commission leader to call for stricter regulations on short-term vacation rentals. In Venice, officials have taken steps to better manage the city’s crowds by collecting data on visitors’ movements — working from a “smart” control room, CNN reported, officials use phone data to see where tourists are from, how long they spend in the city and which places they visit.

And back in the United States, in November, residents of Key West, Florida, have approved three referendums to limit cruise visitors.

Among the goals of these destinations, as they await the return of visitors, is to make tourism better, not only for guests, but for locals and their communities, and to broaden their economies, so they aren’t almost solely reliant on tourism.

Rethinking State Parks

For travelers heading to Oahu, a hike up Diamond Head State Monument is likely on the to-do list. The distinctive silhouette of the crater is as much a part of the quintessential tourist experience as a visit to Waikiki Beach.

In 2019, more than 1.2 million visitors went to Diamond Head. The park was open every day. Staff had to rush to clean bathrooms, which led to lines of irritated visitors. Wear-and-tear was visible from the litter near the summit to the paint on the sign at the bottom of the hike that’s a popular spot for taking photos.

In recent years, getting into Diamond Head has been a frustrating experience for tourists. The combination of tour buses depositing hundreds of guests at the park’s entrance throughout the day, with many others opting to either drive or walk in, led to crowding and long waits to enter the park. Residents said that the overflow into the neighborhood made everyday living exhausting.

Cassandra Springer, a state park ranger, said that people who didn’t prepare for the hike and became dehydrated often had to be rescued. Others regularly strayed off designated areas, saying they didn’t see the signs. Springer said the badly behaved guests were, at times, overwhelming.

“I’d tell people to stay where they are supposed to, to follow the rules, and I’d go to the summit in the afternoon and talk to people, and say, try to take your pictures, enjoy the view, but please don’t linger, don’t crowd. Other people would like to see the view,” Springer said. Some would argue with her or try to justify why they were allowed to break the rules.

At Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, staff and leaders said they felt the pain of losing tourists and their money in 2020, but they also welcomed the pause to rethink how to run a state park.

After successfully creating a reservation system at Haena State Park on Kauai and at Waianapanapa State Park on Maui, limiting parking spaces and implementing a slew of other changes at the parks, the department turned its attention to Diamond Head.

During the pandemic, the Department of Land and Natural Resources added traffic lights on either side of Kahala Tunnel, which visitors must drive and walk through to enter and exit the park, essentially turning the tunnel into an alternating one-way access route. The pedestrian walkway at the entrance was more than doubled to encourage people to walk in rather than drive. The parking vendor created a designated location for ride-share drivers to drop off and pick up passengers.

Curt Cottrell, an administrator for the Division of State Parks, said that the department has raised prices for nonresidents and hopes to lower patronage into the park in order to make the experience of hiking more enjoyable.

Cottrell added that making life easier for locals who live in the community was an important part of the process of re-imagining the park and how tourists visit it.

As in many other destinations that are rethinking tourism, technology and data are key to making changes. In advance of post-pandemic crowds, the department is culling through pre-pandemic and current data to understand guest behavior. Cellphone information provided by UberMedia and on-site park data allow Springer and Cottrell to get an idea of how many guests have out-of-state phone numbers, which of those people are wandering in parts of the park where they aren’t supposed to be, and what time of day they typically arrive and leave, which will inform how the reservation system is set up.

There is an effort to implement a reservation system to limit the number of people in the park at any one time, and Cottrell and Springer are hopeful that they will be able to offer different prices for different times of day and the year, all changes that the pandemic made possible to re-imagine.

“These kinds of changes would enhance the quality of the experience,” Cottrell said. “Those are the things we want to have in place before we hit, God forbid, the 2019 massive tourism levels again.”

A Shift Away From Tourism

Conversations with locals about tourism and the future of Hawaii tend to fall into three camps. There are the absolutists who say that tourism is destroying Hawaii and should be done away with. Those in this camp tend to believe that the Tourism Authority, which received $79 million in transient accommodations tax funds that are added to the daily cost of guest lodging, should no longer receive funding from the government. That money, they say, should go to local communities.

The second group, the status quo, takes the opposite stance: Tourism should remain the lifeblood of the economy — it is easy, it works, keeps people employed and everyone knows how to live with it.

The third group, the compromisers, is of the opinion that tourism can and should exist in concert with other sectors like farming, retail, health care and culture, and not trample on them as it has in the recent past.

That last group points to the potential for growth in farming and what are called “green collar jobs,” which grew during the pandemic, as unemployment rose in other sectors of the economy, primarily tourism.

Kako‘o Oiwi is a farm that has been working to restore hundreds of acres of wetlands to their native state by cultivating taro, a root vegetable and once a staple in Hawaii, in abundant, terraced patches. Before the pandemic, the farm’s leaders had been discussing how to amp up its ecotourism programs. They were surprised when more locals started coming by to work the land last year.

“I realized that people don’t have the time to come here under normal circumstances,” said Ozawa, the farmer and chef.

Such activities might not be able to replace tourism, but can be added to the tourism economy when it recovers. One of the organizations that has partnered with Kako‘o Oiwi to provide resources and workers is Kupu, a nonprofit that provides service programs in conservation and sustainability.

Last year, with stimulus money from the CARES Act, Kupu hired more than 350 people, many of whom had lost their jobs in hospitality and tourism, as part of its Kupu Aina Corps program. Participants worked on farms and in other community jobs. Between September and December, Kupu produced more than $6.5 million in economic benefit for Hawaii, but ran out of funding.

John Leong, chief executive of Kupu, said this model could be expanded to offer employment to more people as a means of diversifying the economy and providing those who work in tourism new opportunities and skills.

“There’s an opportunity to tweak tourism so it has more of a values-driven focus, culturally and environmentally,” Leong said. “We should give people the tourism industry and give them an alternative.”

For tourists around the world, Hawaii’s main draw is its beauty: beaches, parks, fresh air — all natural resources, which, increasingly, locals worry are being harmed by too many tourists. These resources, many point out, can be overused and damaged. They are finite.

“In order for tourism to remain vibrant, the land and community need to be cared for,” Leong said. “When tourism reaches a point where it extracts without giving back, that threatens community, the environment and more.”

Promoting Hawaiian Culture

Nestled in the Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu, is the Bishop Museum, a natural-history museum that focuses on Hawaii’s culture, past and present. During the pandemic, the museum’s team has been developing its virtual memberships, its Japanese language programing and it has doubled down on partnerships with organizations. When the museum opened in June after closing earlier in the year, its 15-acre ​outdoor area became a space for exhibitions and a place to take an audio tour of the gardens, listen to live music and more.

“Part of what the pandemic made a lot of us do is think about what’s important, what we value the most and where to put strategic investments,” said Melanie Ide, the museum’s president and chief executive.

In 1921, the museum endorsed research presented by anthropologist Louis R. Sullivan at the Second International Eugenics Conference. Sullivan, with financial support from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, spent time in Hawaii photographing, interviewing and studying locals, with the intention of measuring and classifying the physical traits of a “pure” Native Hawaiian race. Although eugenics has long been discredited, myths about racial superiority being a scientific rather than social construct have perpetuated racism and had traumatic effects on communities in Hawaii and beyond.

The museum’s current exhibition, “(Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific Racism in Hawaiʻi” takes this on. It reappropriates Sullivan’s own work and uses it to celebrate the ways Native Hawaiians have reclaimed his photographs, plaster busts and tools to learn about their ancestors, genealogy and family. When the exhibition opened in February, 100 years after Sullivan presented his work, many of the people who attended were the descendants of those who had been prodded and violated by the anthropologist.

The exhibition is also a case study in how to take a different approach to tourism. The show’s curators — the museum’s archive director, Leah Caldera, the archaeology curator, Jillian Swift and the genome scientist and University of California San Diego professor Keolu Fox — said it was created for Hawaiians. Interviews with the families whose stories are a key part of the exhibition, and rather than being spoken for by outsiders, the families speak for themselves. Their heirlooms are included and family histories underscored.

But the exhibition can also be appreciated by tourists looking to learn something new about the islands or Pacific Island cultures more broadly.

By having a program that centers on Hawaiian history and experiences in a space that is frequented by tourists, the museum is sending the message that anyone who enters must be willing to engage with more of Hawaii than its beaches.

“A lot of people come to Hawaii and don’t know where they are except what might be in the popular imagination and culture,” Ide said. “We hope people who come here can get oriented and grounded in the culture of Hawaii.”

A More Regenerative Role for Tourism

For many Hawaiians, a large part of rethinking tourism involves rethinking the role of the tourism authority, which was established by the state Legislature in 1998 to serve as “the state’s lead agency supporting tourism.” Many Hawaiians believe that the organization has become too powerful and overfunded, pushing tourism at the expense of everything else.

After the outbreak of the pandemic, Gov. David Ige issued an executive order ceasing the disbursement of hotel and other transient accommodation taxes paid by visitors to the agency. Those funds have, since last year, been utilized to support other government operations.

Many are hopeful that John De Fries, who became the chief executive of the Tourism Authority in September, will be able to lead the islands into an era where tourism is more regenerative than extractive. De Fries is the first Native Hawaiian to lead the organization and business owners who rely on tourism are counting on him to represent their interests as he thinks about how to market the islands in a post-pandemic world.

“We are at a time when our very survival is at stake,” De Fries said. “We understand that there are currencies other than cash that we have to reconcile. Some of those other currencies are the natural environment, a sense of well-being in the community. There’s currency in ensuring that Hawaiian cultural traditions are and should be protected.”

In January 2020, the tourism authority created a 2020-2025 strategic plan with four pillars or areas of focus — natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing — to manage tourism responsibly going forward. When the pandemic hit, the agency decided to continue working on the plan. In particular, it kept consulting with residents about how they feel about tourism.

De Fries, who grew up in Waikiki and has seen tourism turn to overtourism over the past three decades, said that his approach for moving forward will emphasize regenerative travel through the Hawaiian ancestral idea of malama, which means “to nurture.” The four pillars, he said, will be a guiding force.

“Everyone I talk to — hotel owners, elders, even the people who don’t like tourism — agrees that we all want future generations to have a natural resource base that’s in better condition than it is now," he said, "so we have to care for it and anyone with any aloha for this place will understand that.”

It is a lesson that other overtouristed destinations might learn from.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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