I've only visited Hanauma Bay twice. For as long as I can remember, it's been a difficult place to find parking, or even just to stop and look. With all the people trying to visit, the bay kept getting so progressively crowded through the years that I eventually came to terms with the idea that I would probably never return.
To help with the issue of overtourism, reservation systems have been implemented at popular visitor attractions, like Hanauma Bay, to help keep the visitor numbers at a reasonable level. Reservations are also required for visiting Haleakala at sunrise and Waianapanapa State Park on Maui, Haena State Park on Kauai and Diamond Head on Oahu.
Related: Hiking Diamond Head will require a reservation
The new problem is trying to keep track of these reservations, and I can imagine it's a lot more difficult for visitors, who are unfamiliar with which places are on what Islands. Expecting them to know how to keep up with which tourist attractions require reservations seems a stretch.
Planning at least three months ahead with a Hawaii expert who can help create a well-planned itinerary of locations and determine all the reservation requirements for a trip is increasingly important as it is already a complicated process.
There are different websites to make these separate reservations depending on if it's a state park, national park or city and county park. Camping and hiking permits are required in some locations. And all these places have their own booking timelines, which means some can only be booked a few days in advance while others can be booked a month or more in advance -- and it's become imperative to book reservations the moment tickets are released, or visitors will simply miss out.
With visitor numbers climbing, more reservation systems are expected. Last July saw the most visitors to Hawaii in one month than ever before. In 2002, there were 6.5 million visitor arrivals to Hawaii; pre-pandemic in 2019, that number was 10.4 million.
The need for the reservations is apparent as visitor numbers keep rising. There's only one Diamond Head and Kalalau Trail in the world, so controlling numbers helps protect these places. Visitors just need to be prepared and aware that traveling to Hawaii is not the same as it was 20 years ago.
Even a local struggles to navigate reservations
On a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, I stood in the standby line for about two hours before deciding to forgo the shuttle boat to the USS Arizona Memorial. I had tried to make a reservation two months in advance when tickets were first released but wasn't able to get one because they were taken immediately. I then looked one day in advance for the next planned release of tickets, only to lose out at that time, as well. The standby line had been my last chance.
In Waikiki, I took a visitor who wanted to paddle in a canoe to the beach to make a reservation for the week he was staying. We went by three stands, and they were all booked. His spontaneous desire to catch a wave in a canoe was not going to be realized and there was nothing to be done about that, so we moved on.
Later, we stopped by Duke's Waikiki, where prime-time restaurant reservations are known to fill up a few months in advance. But I never had a problem in the past walking to its bar for a drink -- that is, until that night. It was then that I learned the bar is now reservations-only, as well.
Planning ahead is the best way to curb disappointment and not miss out on memorable experiences -- and having a Hawaii travel expert navigate all of these requirements is really the optimal solution.
As far as Hanauma Bay goes, one day I may change my mind and return, but it won't be spur of the moment.