In April 2018, a spring storm crept up on Kauai’s north shore, dumping record rainfall that generated flash floods that swept away homes, bridges, roads and crops. Most of the Garden Isle was unaffected, and Kauai went on to set a record for visitation for the ninth consecutive year.
But traffic in the bucolic north shore tourist town of Hanalei slowed, and the road to access the popular Napali State Park as well as some tourist accommodations was closed to visitors. The residents enjoyed a respite from rubbernecking their way to nearby beaches, and suddenly the floods and landslides became an opportunity.
With the route to the park temporarily closed, this could be the time to deal with overcrowding. A plan has been floated to relieve congestion by using a shuttle to shepherd visitors from Hanalei to Napali State Park. It would be a figurative rainbow after a literal rainstorm.
The April floods on Kauai’s north shore and the constructive community response were a microcosm for Hawaii tourism in 2018.
Healthy, But Challenged
By many indications, the Aloha State’s No. 1 industry is as healthy as ever. Preliminary data indicates Hawaii for the first time welcomed 10 million visitors in a single year, and revenue numbers stayed relatively strong despite several attention-grabbing incidents, most notably the four months of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on Hawaii Island, but also hurricanes, more floods and a bogus missile attack warning.
Airlift continues to increase, with new direct routes from Japan and the U.S. mainland in the past two years, and Southwest to join the competition this year.
In other areas, though, the industry is ripe for a reset. After a scathing state audit of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), which criticized the destination marketing organization for poor financial oversight and organization, the state legislature threatened to drastically cut the authority’s budget, sending the industry into a panic.
In the end, the budget was merely trimmed, but the negative audit and the tension between the tourism authority and the legislature eventually led the HTA board to replace the entire leadership team.
Meanwhile, as a new executive team settles in, the calls for a more sustainable approach to tourism, one that protects and preserves natural resources, residential communities and Hawaiian culture, have grown louder than ever.
While visitation to Hawaii is at record levels, tourism revenue, when adjusted for inflation, is flat to down over the past decade. As the state has attracted greater numbers, there has been far more discussion in recent years of how to manage resources and limit overuse.
Rather than pushing to attract any and all visitors, there has been a call for a more refined approach that would help balance tourism among different markets and segments to guard against peaks and troughs. Additionally, more and more popular sites in Hawaii, from scenic hikes to prime turtle-watching beaches, are plagued by traffic jams, safety hazards and other headaches for residents and officials.
On Kauai, the Queen’s Bath near Princeville is a picturesque seaside pool on a lava shelf fed by ocean waves. It is an Instagram dream but also immensely perilous. Five people have died there in the past decade, the most recent in December, when a 23-year-old woman from Los Angeles was swept off the rocks. The site is on the Kauai Visitors Bureau’s do-not-promote list, but that did not stop Travel + Leisure from calling the Queen’s Bath a “thrill-seeker’s paradise” in a 2017 article.
With more tourists than ever armed with more information than ever, the old methods of restricting access and managing traffic are not holding up. In the most extreme cases, restrictions and regulations have already been imposed, and more locations will likely follow suit in the future.
In 2017, the federal government instituted a reservation system for the popular sunrise tours to the top of Maui’s Haleakala. At the turn of the millennium, the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve near Waikiki was suffocating under the crush of snorkelers who filled its waters daily. Now, the park is closed one day a week, and first-time visitors must watch a nine-minute video on safety and conservation.
Turning a corner
At the open of 2019, the many people in Hawaii who depend on tourism are watching closely. The federal government shutdown has only hurt, and early booking pace shows some softening in demand for the Aloha State, several analysts told Travel Weekly.
“It’s unclear if its a signal of decline or of more demand for [Hawaii’s] competitors,” Churchill said. “Some of the competition, like Mexico and the Caribbean, have had to reinvent themselves and have some new and growing product. That’s something Hawaii has not kept up with. There’s not a lot of new product or new hotels. … It’s a mature destination.”
A common refrain in Hawaii tourism is that its most cherished assets are its distinct culture and aloha spirit. Much has been done over the past few decades to shed old, inaccurate stereotypes of Hawaiian culture and history. Still, many say much remains to be done to fortify the state’s singular element, which is increasingly vital as Hawaii competes globally.
North Shore EcoTours owner Keola Ryan was born and raised on Oahu and is now a teacher of Hawaiian Studies.
“For me, it’s very important that the local tourism industry and leaders reflect the culture of the place accurately and represent Hawaii in a culturally responsible way,” Ryan said. “Traditionally, the tourism industry only saw the entertainment value of the Hawaiian culture. When you see it only as entertainment, it can be manipulated and modified in order to satisfy the demands of the audience. And when that happens, the integrity of the culture can be lost.”
She concluded: “There has been a lot of progress made, but there’s a lot more work to be done.”
Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing for the Travel Leaders Network, follows Hawaii closely and said that, while there has always been debate among the public about the value and mission of tourism authorities, their ability to bring together the public and private sectors behind a single goal is crucial.
“The new people coming in have experience in the private and public sector, and I think they’ll bring stability and confidence to the agency,” Hegarty said.
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