Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Local sentiment about Hawaii tourism was a hot topic this week, following an April 25 Associated Press (AP) report with the headline “Agency to Hawaii Residents: Don’t Hate on Tourists,” which discussed a pair of recently released YouTube videos created by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA).    

The 30-second spots are intended for residents and showcase Hawaii tourism’s positive impact on a pair of local families, promoting the campaign’s tagline: “Take care of tourism. It’s a family business.”

The Hawaiian Islands, home to around 1.4 million people, welcomed a record-breaking 8.6 million visitors in 2015, the fourth straight year the destination set a new arrivals peak. But the AP story noted that not everybody living in the state is happy about the growing number of travelers. The report went on to suggest that the HTA’s YouTube videos were, at least in part, an effort to combat negative sentiment among some Hawaii locals about the state’s biggest economic driver.   

Intrigued by the idea that Hawaii residents might be growing increasingly frustrated with the state’s booming tourism industry, I spoke with Leslie Dance, the HTA’s vice president of marketing and product development, who was quoted in the AP story, and asked why her organization decided to put the videos out now. 

“It was not a reaction to anything negative,” she said, noting that the HTA hasn’t conducted any new research indicating Hawaii residents are any unhappier with tourism today. 

According to Dance, the HTA created the videos, which cost approximately $18,000 a piece to produce, to showcase some of the state’s unique, family-run tourism businesses and “to remind our residents about how success in the tourism business impacts all of Hawaii’s families, either directly or indirectly.”  

“It’s more than just filling airline seats and hotel rooms,” Dance said. “Our impact is broad at the grass-roots level, and every community, kamaaina [local] business, nonprofit, and charity benefits from the success of our industry, and I think these videos are a reminder of how fortunate we all are to have this thriving industry.”

I also spoke about the HTA’s videos with Evan Jordan, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii’s tourism industry management school, who specializes in the impact tourism development can have on a vacation destination’s residents. He told me destinations enjoying tourism-related economic high periods aren’t always home to the happiest locals.

“When tourism is doing well in a destination, it means you have a lot of people coming, which tends to amplify things that are perceived as not so good, like crowding and traffic,” he said. “People tend to be happy that the economy is doing well, but it’s more prevalent to them that there’s negative stuff happening.”

In contrast, when a vacation destination is suffering through a period of poor tourism returns, residents tend to view the industry more favorably, according to Jordan. 

“People quickly realize that if you don’t have tourists coming, then generally the economy is not doing so well,” he said.

Like Dance, however, Jordan said he hadn’t noticed any recent evidence suggesting Hawaii residents are significantly unhappier with the state’s tourism industry now than in past years. Jordan also mentioned a resident sentiment study that the HTA conducts every couple of years and posts on its website. 

The most recent version of the study, conducted in 2014 and released in March 2015, seems to support Dance and Jordan’s assertion that there hasn’t been a dramatic shift in how locals feel about Hawaii tourism. Asked to rate their overall perception of the state’s tourism industry, about 1,600 Hawaii residents surveyed generated an average ranking of 8 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being extremely favorable.  

The average ranking from similar study respondents has been an 8 out of 10 since 2012.  

Jordan applauded the HTA for the videos, saying they “show foresight in terms of addressing something that could be a potential issue before it really becomes a problem.”

He added: “I think they’re aware that there is a limit to what people will take in terms of tourism, and being aware of that is a good first step.” 

There are, on the other hand, some in Hawaii’s tourism industry who aren’t quite as happy with the HTA’s new initiative, including Mufi Hannemann, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association (HLTA). While he praised the message of the videos, Hannemann said the funds used to produce them would be better spent on attracting travelers to the Hawaiian Islands.

“Our only concern is that the precious marketing dollars that tourism stakeholders, such as HLTA, support wholeheartedly for HTA to promote and attract visitors to Hawaii should be used exclusively for tourism marketing,” he wrote in an email. “That’s their overarching goal and objective and where their expertise lies.”

Thus far the HTA has spent about $36,000 on the videos, shot on Oahu and the Big Island, but Dance said the organization already has another planned on Kauai and will eventually shoot one on Maui as well. 

Hannemann suggested that spending money on social-media video campaigns aimed at residents isn’t an appropriate undertaking for the HTA.

“Leave the education and advocacy of the importance of tourism to our local residents to the private hospitality businesses, labor organizations, government officials and business organizations, such as the chamber of commerce and HLTA,” he wrote, “without tapping into public monies set aside for tourism marketing.”

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