Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

A trio of academics and tourism industry experts teamed up on a recent paper outlining what the authors call "intractable" issues in the state's tourism industry, and suggesting some general paths forward for improvement.

"Charting a New Course for Hawaii Tourism," published in February, was coauthored by Frank Haas, a former marketing director for the Hawaii Tourism Authority and a tourism consultant; Paul Brewbaker, an economic analyst and principal at TZ Economics; and James Mak, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Hawaii and a research fellow at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

"It is intended to be a call to action," Haas said. "It's time to rethink the way we structure tourism management in Hawaii and the insufficient funding for programs. It's long overdue really, when you read the comments and letters to the editor in the local papers from people responding to overtourism."

While Hawaii is welcoming more visitors than ever, they are spending less than previous generations of tourists. According to the report, when adjusted for inflation, Hawaii saw less economic benefit in 2017 from 9.3 million visitors than it did in 1989, when there were 6.5 million visitors. As visitation has increased and receipts stagnated, traffic jams and other nuisances that diminish quality of life for residents have become major talking points. The HTA's own surveys show that resident support for tourism has waned in recent years.

"People are saying enough is enough," Haas said. "My fear as a marketing person is that eventually this will affect the visitor experience. We are more expensive than Mexico and some other competing destinations, so if you are not offering the experience, that could hurt demand."

While some national parks and highly popular state-operated sites in Hawaii have regulations in place to restrict traffic and overuse, the list of attractions generating complaints grows each year. Locals fume at the traffic jams that form near Laniakea Beach on Oahu's North Shore where visitors flock to see sea turtles, and residents have clashed with the increasing number of hikers on the popular Maunawili Falls hike that crosses private land.

The authors of the paper call attention to these pressing matters while advocating for major shifts in resource allocation and the manner in which tourism is guided at the state level. The report does not call for a reduction in visitors, which are predicted to eclipse 10 million this year.

Without diving into specific policy prescriptions, the academics argue the state should look to three key areas: empowering a state agency or agencies with the authority to take meaningful action, allocating sufficient resources to implement the plans, and creating a long-term, comprehensive strategy. They suggest rebalancing the HTA to focus more on management and less on marketing, a data-driven approach to drawing higher spending visitors, and convening a task force to create a detailed vision for the Hawaii's tourism future.

"We have wonderful data. Hawaii is envy of other tourism industries for the data we collect," Haas said. "We need to take advantage of that and use advanced data analytics, predictive modeling and other tools to dive into and refine the strategy. We can focus on visitors that will have a higher spend and lower impact. We know some of them, like golfers, honeymooners, corporate travelers, but we don't know all of them."

Repeat visitors staying in a vacation rental, Haas said, will contribute less to the economy than first-time visitors staying at a major resort, who support more employees and tend to spend more per day.

As far as the impacts of Southwest Airlines entering the Hawaii market, Haas said it was too soon to tell. If they keep fares low and push out other carriers, that could reduce total air seats to the islands, he said, but if they get more first-time visitors to try the Aloha State for vacation, that could be a boon.

The report also suggests that the HTA or some other new agency, such as a ministry of tourism, would need more authority to truly address the problems, including the ability to direct other state agencies to execute a common objective. Additionally, the state legislature reduced HTA funding in 2018. Meanwhile, tourism and hotel occupancy tax revenues have steadily increased,  and the report calls for an increase in investment. The convention center has $50 million in deferred maintenance, and the authors say more of the tourism revenues should go toward improving the experience for visitors and resident alike, including managing traffic, park and trail improvements, and other initiatives.

"The issues facing Hawaii tourism are intractable but not unsolvable," the report concludes. "The time has come to acknowledge these issues before they permanently affect Hawaii's global appeal and the quality of life in the islands. Hawaii is still a 'dream destination,' although that dream does not come with a guarantee of future success."

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