Return to Paradise | Resonance

Return to Paradise

Insights — 28 April 2023
by Smita Submaraian

The Aloha State wants to create a new kind of tourism for the islands. It’s regenerative and conscientious, it’ll benefit locals and visitors, but most importantly, it’s designed around the land. And it may be a guide for destinations everywhere.

There’s not a lot about Hawai‘i that hasn’t already been said, or written, or sung, or shown. Beaches, mountains, surfing, sunsets, Spam in nori, shave ice, surfing, ukulele, hula, aloha shirts, poke and poi—touchstones of everyday life in this near-mythic paradise. But those who know Hawai‘i know it’s much more than a living, breathing screensaver; it’s about a harmonious love and respect for nature. It’s real life aloha.

To average travelers, aloha feels like a catchall, a word used to express a gamut of emotions, a cut and paste prelude to receiving a (plastic) lei around their necks. But to a Hawaiian, it’s an ethos, an encouragement, a way of life. The spirit of aloha—being in the presence of and sharing the essence of life—teaches valuable lessons of peace, kindness, compassion and responsibility to future generations; it’s an honor code that focuses on kindness and respect, that binds people and their paradise.

Wrapped within these teachings is the concept of aloha ‘āina, or love of the land, that encompasses the Hawaiian world view of a reciprocal and familial relationship between people and place. Connection to ‘āina is essential to the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of Native Hawaiians, and the health of these places is tied to the health of the communities that live and thrive within them—if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. It’s not just “talk story” that’s passed down through generations; it’s a way of life for those who call Hawai‘i home.

The spirit of aloha has buoyed islanders all through the pandemic, and today, it’s guiding the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s strategy.


For the Love of the Land

When destinations around the world began closing their borders, Hawai‘i was the first US state to ask tourists to postpone their vacations. The first flight cancellations happened in February 2020, followed by the CDC’s No Sail Order for cruise ships in early March, with a full shutdown beginning in earnest on March 26, and continuing for the better part of the year. The state also put in place a strictly monitored two-week quarantine on anyone choosing to venture there amid COVID-19.

The measures didn’t halt all mainland tourists at first, but over time, they were effective in chilling tourism and flattening the curve. As a result, total visitor arrivals in 2020 fell to 2.7 million, down 74% compared with 2019, according to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. To understand how big a drop that is, consider this: the last time fewer than three million visitors came to Hawai‘i was 1975, according to Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism statistics.

Patrick Fitzgerald, long-time resident of the island, past member of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority board and current CEO of Hualalai Resort, said this was a truly unique scenario. “The people of the islands have lived through, and survived, a lot of tough times—natural disasters, local skirmishes and the like, but this was something no one ever expected. It wasn’t just a drop in tourism numbers, it brought the island’s biggest industry to a grinding halt. It affected everyone, from big resorts to local shops, which meant everyone needed to work together to come out on top.”

It’s an admirable goal. But the reality is that public opinions on the revival of tourism are split—long-time residents (yes, even those who rely on tourism in some way for their livelihood) are reluctant to see the large droves of tourists return, while those directly part of the industry, like owners of hotels, resorts and independent rentals, can’t wait to welcome them back. It’s not just a sentiment; the numbers back it up. A pre-flight testing program eliminated most quarantine requirements in October 2020. And yet, according to a survey conducted by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority in November 2020, about two-thirds of Hawai‘i’s residents said they still did not want tourists to return to the islands. Why?

The answer is (as many answers often are) both simple and complex.


To Welcome Or Not To Welcome

Hawai‘i’s draw is its jaw-dropping beauty, its beaches and surf, its parks and fresh air—all natural resources, which are finite, and which locals worry are being harmed by overtourism. For these people, who have grown up revering the sacred lands that sustain them, it’s always been unfair and inexcusable that cultural icons and beliefs are carelessly trod upon by visitors; the pandemic just gave them an opportunity to reflect and experience their island home without tourists all over it.

The fact that the pandemic is now transitioning into endemic status isn’t helping either. Conversations about “post-pandemic travel” change daily, with people seeking to escape their homes in search of warmer, sandier pastures. The fragmented global tourism recovery created the perfect storm for Hawai‘i to become one of the most in-demand destinations for American travelers in the summer of 2021.

And storm they did. The Internet is overrun with social media posts showing people touching endangered Hawaiian monk seals, hiking on forbidden trails or going off designated paths—actions that outraged locals and sparked a debate over how to better regulate and protect popular sites.

Perhaps this cavalier “business as usual” consumption of the islands when visitors came back was the last straw for the locals. Case in point—during a recent water shortage in Upcountry Maui, residents could be fined $500 for “using water for irrigation, watering lawns, washing vehicles or other nonessential activities”—all to accommodate post-pandemic visitors in various hotels and resorts, tourists who weren’t particularly mindful of pandemic restrictions or respectful of private property. Why should a local pay for an outsider’s carelessness?

Aloha Reimagined

Today, the Aloha State is walking a fine line to manage both tourist and resident expectations. Hawai‘i tourism officials have long been cognizant of the underlying problems and the need to reinvent tourism by pushing for sustainability instead of arrival numbers as a measure of success. In early 2020, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority instituted a strategic plan with four main pillars intended to put Hawai‘i on a trajectory towards responsible tourism: natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing, the first four of many steps the state would take in its journey towards a reborn visitation.

Unsurprisingly, this concept seems to be the one thing everyone agrees to, whether pro tourism or not: there’s a pressing need for each community to take responsibility for the restoration and preservation of the archipelago’s nature and culture for generations to come. And if anyone knows how to care for locals, the islands and their visitors, it’s John De Fries, who is thriving as president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority. The way he sees it, the fundamentals of Hawai‘i’s tourism industry haven’t changed—it remains a relationship-based way of life in which trust still is the major currency. “If you’re a school teacher or construction worker, your view of tourism is one way; if you’re a hotel executive or restaurant owner, you view tourism another way,” he explains. “It’s about bringing that diversity together to the same table.”

While yes, part of Hawai‘i’s overcrowding issue is caused by a lack of management practice or restrictions on visitors, there’s another culprit: social media and GPS technology also have led visitors to places that are remote and fragile just to get “that shot.” Take the Haiku Stairs along the Ko’olau mountain range in Oahu. Security guards, “No Trespassing” signs and the threat of fines have done little to deter hikers from making the 3,922-step ascent— known as the “Stairway to Heaven”—to a former radio relay station used by the Navy during World War II. Social media has only emboldened visitors and endangered them in the process. As a result, in September 2021, the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to remove the stairs completely—they’re just too much of a liability, and the cost to add in requisite safety measures is too much. But is this a step too far? Is there no other option than to simply scrap heritage icons?

Legacy Renewed, Industry Reborn

The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority thinks there is, which is why the authority is taking steps towards realizing it’s vision of “regenerative tourism,” with more to be unveiled in 2022. Over the next three years, the authority aims to manage the number of tourist accommodations on the islands, seek land use and zoning changes, and review airport policies; the plan also includes a “regenerative tourism” fee that supports environmental resources and allows the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority more oversight of trails and other natural sites.Recently, it also limited crowd access to two popular sites: Hanauma Bay in Oahu caps entries at 720 visitors a day (as opposed to the thousands it saw every day), has hiked fees from $5 to $25 for non-residents and will remain closed two days a week, while Oahu’s Diamond Head State Monument trail will also have reduced days of operation. Visitors to Kauai’s Haena State Park, known to many as the end of the road, as well as to Maui’s Wai’anapanapa State Park will need to make a reservation anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days in advance, depending on the site and season.

All necessary steps to ensure the longevity of the islands and their treasures, says De Fries. “We all have the capacity to love our homes, our places of birth, our families, and what regenerative tourism is based on is this visceral connection that we love Hawai‘i, and we must nurture and protect our Hawai‘i.”

The authority has also launched the Mālama Hawai‘i marketing campaign, inviting travelers to experience the Hawaiian Islands on a deeper level, with a greater emphasis on connecting with culture, giving back to the destination and preserving it for the future, while following safe health practices. (Since its initiation, the program has grown from having 16 hotel and airline partners to more than 110 at the end of 2021, which have all committed to rewarding guests with a free night’s stay if they spend a day helping to clean beaches or reforest land.) “Everyone relates to aloha,” says De Fries, “Mālama is emerging as its sister value.”

Parallel to the authority’s destination management efforts, Hawaiian Airlines launched a new “Travel Pono” in-flight video and campaign in September 2021, which plays on landing, advising visitors on how to act responsibly when exploring Hawai‘i.

Even luxury destinations are joining the movement—the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, in partnership with Lahaina Restoration Foundation, is inviting guests to learn about the history and culture of Maui by documenting and transcribing historic artifacts from all eras of Maui’s past, including the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Missionary, Whaling and Sugar periods. Further west, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is offering guests a fifth night free for participating in a solo beach cleanup, and the Fairmont Orchid is offering a fourth night free when guests participate in volunteer opportunities like a visit to Waikōloa Dry Forest Preserve to help restore the native flora.

Fitzgerald applauds these initiatives, but advises us to take them with a grain of salt. “Hotels and resorts have always respected culture and tried hard to make it a part of the guest experience,” he says. “The Mālama programme helps bring them center stage, but they’re not all new—they just have a chance to come into the spotlight.”

One community that has long championed immersion in Hawaiian culture is Kohanaiki, a private club community on the Big Island. Kohanaiki is built around a rich trove of artefacts and places that the owners have carefully integrated into the experience. “It’s important that our members understand the connection between the Hawaiian culture and this land as part of our commitment to care for this ahupua’a,” says David Reese, Kohanaiki President and CEO. “They see it and live it every day in our landscape and our collections. It’s woven into everyday life.”

That’s all well and good, but are visitors ready to think about cultural immersion as more than an optional feel-good activity? More importantly, are they willing to pay for it? According to a 2020 study by the University of Hawai‘i, the answer is a resounding “yes.” When respondents were asked if they were willing to pay more to experience and support sustainable tourism experiences in Hawai‘i, more than 70% answered in the affirmative, with over 35% of respondents willing to pay more than 10% extra to experience culturally respectful tourism experiences in Hawai‘i, and nearly 20% willing to pay up to 16% more.

9 To 5 In Paradise

As the pandemic ebbs and flows, Hawai‘i is also becoming more than a holiday spot—the increase in the number of jobs being done remotely has led some workers to set up shop across the country or around the world. For affluent remote workers, the new normal presents an opportunity to live somewhere tropical and idyllic—which might explain why demand for real estate in Hawai‘i has escalated dramatically.

According to Hawai‘i Life’s Luxury Market Report published in December 2021, homes valued at $3 million or more saw sales volume rise by 235% compared to 2020, with deal volume peaking at a record-breaking $3.7 billion. That’s not all—sales of homes priced above $10 million have climbed at an even more robust pace, with transactions totaling $1.06 billion closing in the first three quarters of the year. And it’s not just private homes on offer; clubs and communities that previously marketed ideal vacation homes have course-corrected their messaging to include
high-speed Internet and spacious home workspaces as part of the package—creating the ideal “live-work-play” experience augmented by bespoke services and, of course, instant access to the islands’ inimitable outdoor lifestyle.

So will Hawai‘i’s new, perhaps part-time, residents be open to the idea of regenerative tourism? “Of course,” says Fitzgerald. “Owning a place in Hawai‘i means having more of a vested interest in the land, now and in the future. People are more responsible about the things that are theirs, be it a car, an animal or a piece of land. Where tourists have an easy-come, easy-go mentality, owners are here to stay, which means they are more directly affected by the pros and cons of tourism and its effect on resources.”

Regenerative tourism, mindful sustainability, considered land limitations—all these ideas (and more) for making visitation strategies more meaningful and thoughtful—can be rewarding for visitors and effective and profitable provided that authorities, visitors, residents and commu-
nities all work together consistently to achieve it. And Hawai‘i is not just ready for this renaissance; its people are actively working together to make it happen.

Inspired by the tenets of aloha ‘āina and mālama, shaped by the elements and held sacred by everyone living on the island, the Hawaiian way of life may offer answers about our relationship with both nature and humanity in a rapidly changing world.

We can’t wait to hear them all.

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