It’s time for Hawaii to take tourism seriously



There is growing evidence of the need to reinvent Hawaiian tourism.

  • A recent survey by the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center found that residents support active tourism management and advocate a variety of management tools. Different views were also noted as to whether to keep the Hawaii Tourism Authority, even though very few residents did not want a “Hawaii Marketing or Tourism Management Agency” at all.
  • Local residents’ support for tourism (as measured by the HTA) has been eroding for years, a trend that has only accelerated. The 2020 pandemic shutdown of tourism has dramatically visualized the impact of tourism.
  • The HTA’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan calls for more support for Hawaiian culture, natural resources and community programs. Based on this plan, HTA initiated “target management action plans” for each island in order to identify points of friction in tourism.
  • The legislature has stepped in and passed bills designed to change the mandates, functions, budgets and accountability of HTA.

There is a lot of energy in the air about tourism. What is missing is a well-thought-out discussion of how tourism management and governance can be designed in the long term. Tourism needs a governing body that can effectively transform tourism concerns and problems into long-term, lasting solutions.

In 1998, when HTA was founded, there were approximately 6.6 million visitor arrivals. HTA was the result of a task force that responded to the conditions and challenges of the 1990s. Fast forward to 2019, when the number of tourist arrivals exceeded 10 million, it is clear that times and conditions have changed.

A new task force – representing the interests of the community, policy makers, industry and other stakeholders – is now needed to review and possibly revise the governance model based on lessons learned and the new realities of the 2020s . One of these new realities is the need for continuous, broad stakeholder input on plans and impact management.

It can be argued that HTA never really had the extensive authority and resources to adequately handle the complexities of Hawaiian tourism.

But is there a better solution? Should the HTA be reorganized to better address community concerns and accountability? Should HTA be replaced by a new governance model with broader authority? As recent legislation suggests, should it be scaled back and realigned? A newly invented HTA or a new governance model would benefit from an expanded and transparent view of alternatives.

With tourism recovering, now is the time to look into tourism management and evaluate alternative models to take into account the impact of tourism.

Can it be done Hawaii is not alone in the challenges of tourism. Travel destinations around the world have been hit by the impact of tourism and have seen how poorly managed tourism can affect the quality of life.

Beachgoers enjoy the sun on Waikiki Beach during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourism in the state has returned as the pandemic subsided; Here sun-seekers once again fill the beach in Waikiki. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

The good news is that many travel destinations have developed effective plans and governance models in response to the challenges of tourism.

A European Union report on tourism management issues summarizes 41 different management plans.

Rotterdam has launched a community-based management plan that assesses the role of tourism from district to district. Barcelona has integrated a permanent tourism council with the participation of the municipality into its city administration.

Columbia River Gorge has launched programs to deal with the overcrowding and also generate support for housing and other community needs. Iceland responded to a tourism boom by implementing comprehensive, long-term plans and separating macroeconomic planning and the functions of “destination management” from the marketing agency.

We don’t have to start from scratch. Hawaii can learn by studying other destinations to implement a governance structure and programs that meet our unique needs.

When it comes to the need to plan, Benjamin Franklin may have put it best: “If you don’t prepare, you are preparing to fail.”


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