Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

To some degree or another, all 50 states are in the process of easing pandemic-related restrictions, including Hawaii, where Gov. David Ige recently announced a four-phase process for reopening. As the Aloha State shifts focus from arresting the spread of Covid-19 to emerging from the economic shutdown, the future of the state's No. 1 industry, tourism, is top of mind.

There is no doubt the financial and personal toll has been huge. Hawaii enjoyed one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country until coronavirus hit. Now the rate has surged to 35%, one of the highest in the nation. More than 200,000 people have been laid off during the pandemic, in a state with a total population just shy of 1.5 million.

Getting tourism back on its feet is a priority, but many also see an opportunity to tweak and reform the industry in response to a pre-coronavirus trend of souring resident sentiment, as total visitation steadily grew from 7 million annual visitors in 2010 to 10 million in 2019. 

Now, lots of ideas are being floated to improve tourism infrastructure and better manage visitors and the most popular sites. A new paper published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, "Can Hawaii Rise from the Ashes of COVID-19 as a Smart Destination?" examines the possible benefits of a technological revolution within the state's tourism industry. 

"When we say 'smart destination,' it means better use of information technology, phone apps, social media and GPS to monitor and manage tourism," said Frank Haas, one of the study's authors along with James Mak, a research fellow and emeritus professor of economics at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. "It means Hawaii managing its own destiny using technology or other methods available to us to make tourism compatible with community expectations and desires."

Haas, a former vice president of marketing for Hawaii Tourism Authority, says he and Mak penned the essay to spark discussion on the next steps forward. The paper examines how emerging technology in transportation, tours, booking and other services can be applied to better manage Hawaii's visitors and their favorite destinations.

"Hawaii is a state with limited control over how many people come as tourists, so it is much easier to manage behaviors than try to put some number on how many people can visit," Haas said. "And even if we had just 2 million visitors, if they were all behaving badly it would be a terrible situation. Five hundred people on a beach that can't accommodate them is overtourism."

Haas and Mak suggest, among other initiatives, that it is time to both charge more for access to Hawaii's most trafficked sites and also establish better management tools such as reservation systems.

As an example they offer Hanauma Bay, the popular Oahu snorkeling spot, which after being overrun with beachgoers set a daily visitors cap in the mid-1990s, in addition to installing a more formal conservation program and closing the area to all visitors every Tuesday. The problem, in their view, is there is currently no way to know when Hanauma Bay has hit capacity and people will be turned away. 

"Ticket booths are manned by employees. Online reservations and prepayment are not allowed. This antiquated management approach causes delays and frustration, especially since the residency status of park visitors must be individually verified (because residents are admitted free). There are certainly 21st century technological solutions that can ration access better and cheaper," Haas and Mak write. 

People are growing more accustomed to making reservations and purchases online every day, and it is time Hawaii's busiest attractions mimic museums, national parks and other destinations around the world that use online reservation and ticket purchasing systems.

"That way you don't have a bunch of people coming when they'll just be turned away, creating unnecessary congestion and negative experiences," Haas said. 

In some cities, such as Amsterdam, when tourists are searching for a popular site on their phone, they might be notified that their choice is crowded or at capacity along with suggestions for alternative attractions. The Dutch city's digital signage also uses near field communication technology to read the language setting on a pedestrian's phone and display directions and other information in their native tongue. 

Haas and Mak say funding for much of the improvement could come by parlaying an attraction's popularity into more revenue. Diamond Head's trails can get congested early in the day, and pedestrian access is through a perilously narrow tunnel that is also used by buses and trolleys. Haas said the state should hike the $1 entry fee and use the funds to improve the iconic site adjacent to Waikiki. 

Smart technology can also be used to better target tourism campaigns to seek desirable high-spending travelers.

"There is an opportunity here," he said. "We know in the short term we aren't going to have 10 million visitors. Who knows what it will be, but it will take time to get the numbers back up. That offers a chance to optimize or maximize the economic impact of those visitors. There are traditional sectors like golfers, business travelers, weddings and others, but there are also emerging ones like foodies. There is a growing subset of travelers that are happy to spend a lot of money at restaurants and love those experiences. We can use better research to target them." 

Specific to post-pandemic concerns, Haas said technology can help hotels cut down on physical interaction, such as bypassing check-in and allowing guests to use their smartphones as keys. Additionally, new technology for screening passengers at airports could parlay Hawaii's isolation into a competitive advantage. 

"Once the threat of the virus is reduced, Hawaii will have a very distinct advantage over other U.S. destinations, in that we can really show almost 100% control over who is coming in and out. Places like Las Vegas and Orlando, with all of the visitors driving into the destination, can't do the same," Haas said.  

To fully realize the potential and make a cohesive strategy, Haas said it would be beneficial to have a chief technology officer position within the Hawaii Tourism Authority and, more importantly, a comprehensive statewide tourism strategy including the Department of Land and Natural Resources, HTA, Department of Transportation and other agencies while also having the authority to execute projects and secure funding.  

"After crises there is generally an attitude afterward to get butts in seats and heads in beds, get things going as fast as possible," Haas said. "That often means turning to discounting, which is never good for the brand. I think that would be a strategic mistake. This is the time to start the destination on a new path, and use this opportunity to improve."

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