Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The Hawaii tourism industry enters the new decade at a critical juncture. Trends up to this point indicate the state eclipsed 10 million visitors in 2019 (final figures have yet to be released) and talk from state lawmakers, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and residents alike is more focused on stabilizing the numbers, increasing revenue per tourist and better managing resources, rather than increasing traffic any further. 

The state tourism industry is looking to the future in myriad ways, including renewed attention on protecting natural resources and Hawaiian heritage, diversifying offerings and planning for the next generation of travelers from top markets North America and Japan, as well those loaded with potential, like China. 

Along with a plethora of positive developments comes plenty of concerns. Here's a look at what to watch for in Hawaii tourism in 2020.

Regulation of short-term rentals: After fierce debate, Oahu's lawmakers passed new regulations and restrictions on short-term rentals in 2019. After an implementation period during the latter half of the year, the true impacts of the new ordinance will be better evaluated in 2020. Available short-term rental nights fell 4% on Oahu in November 2019 compared to November 2018, according to an HTA report, while increasing by 18% or more on the other three most populous islands. Of particular interest is if the new rules provide relief to residents who felt crowded out of popular neighborhoods, and, on the other side of the debate, if areas more reliant on rentals, such as the North Shore during the winter surf season, take a significant economic hit.

The post-10 million visitor adjustment: Resident sentiment toward the tourism industry has dipped in recent years. Tourists are being blamed for housing, parking and traffic woes, and officials are implementing plans to further regulate the most popular attractions and sites. On the North Shore of Kauai a new shuttle and parking permit system was implemented for Haena State Park, limiting daily visitation to 900 in a place where peak times saw more than 3,000 visitors. The first impressions of the new program have been mostly positive. This follows new restrictions on popular sites in the previous five years, such as restrictions at Haleakala National Park during the busy sunrise period. Will other popular sites follow suit?

Injection of luxury: There is a constant churn of renovations at Hawaii hotels, but 2019 saw the introduction of a handful of notable luxury properties that will be worth watching in 2020. Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, A Sensei Retreat is an adults-only property in Lanai that is the first to offer wellness programming under the Sensei brand from Larry Ellison and Dr. David Agus. Espacio, The Jewel of Waikiki from Aqua-Aston offers a new level of extravagance in Waikiki -- 2,250 square-foot three bedroom suites, all on their own dedicated floor, with a host of amenities including round-the-clock service and use of luxury rental cars. Mauna Lani on the Kona Coast of the Island of Hawaii debuted in January as the first Auberge property in the Aloha State after a year-long overhaul. Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani launched in October after a $60 million revamp of the former Waikiki Parc Hotel. The property features the first Halekulani Bakery and Restaurant with a chocolate-viewing kitchen. 

Renewed scrutiny of tourist flights: Helicopter and small-aircraft tours in the Aloha State are under the microscope to start the new year after 2019 concluded with a helicopter crash on Kauai's north shore that killed seven. Even prior to the Dec. 26 tragedy on the Garden Isle, U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) was calling for increased regulations and introduced a bill in the House that would have severely limited commercial small-flight operations nationwide. Case picked up the campaign after a helicopter crashed in the residential area of Kailua on Oahu in April, killing three. Then in June, a skydiving plane crashed and killed 11 people. Now, Case has vowed to reintroduce the bill. Helicopter tourism is big business in Hawaii, where many towering waterfalls and other breathtaking sights are accessible only by arduous trails or are completely protected by impenetrable jungle. Since 2000, there have been 11 helicopter crashes in Hawaii resulting in 45 deaths. The FAA has stated it is not concerned with the safety of the industry statewide, but that is unlikely to halt the new push for additional regulations.

Will Hawaii get an airport authority? Hawaii, along with Alaska, is one of only two states in the country that does not have an independent airport administration or authority to oversee the management, maintenance and development of its airports. By almost all accounts, from tourism professionals to Hawaii elected officials and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state's network of airports is in need of a wide array of upgrades and the pace of change has been crawling. The state legislature has declined to pass a bill that would set up a Hawaii airport authority four years in a row. Will the sponsors go for a fifth try?

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