Hawaii & Alaska
Big Island of Hawaii (Photo by Peter Ravella, CNT)

HI - Hawaii’s over-tourism problem may get worse than ever. Here's why

The state’s tourism board is on the brink of collapse — along with its helpful policies on managing foot traffic to Hawaii’s most beautiful and sacred sites.

In early 2021, Hawaii’s tourism board kicked off a trailblazing plan to inject authentic Native Hawaiian culture into every facet of its visitor industry, using it to help protect its communities and fragile places while deepening the tourist experience. Now, just three years in, the “Malama Hawaii” or “Care for Hawaii” initiative to push sustainable tourism may be on its way out.

As a busy summer travel season impends, Hawaii’s legislators have allocated no funds for the state’s 25-year-old tourism office in the proposed state tourism budget bill for fiscal year 2023-2024, which will kick off on July 1. And late in April, lawmakers considered two bills to disband the Hawaii Tourism Authority and replace it with an agency that would focus less on marketing Hawaii to tourists and more on managing the destination’s resources.

The bill was deferred and HTA remains in place, but numerous knowledgeable people who spoke to Bloomberg predict that excluding the agency in the final budget would significantly curtail HTA’s efforts in managing tourism on the islands.

John De Fries, chief executive officer at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said in a newsletter that without funding, the HTA’s work in destination management, visitor education and brand marketing work will be jeopardized. The HTA, he said, will be “making tough decisions in the coming days” about canceling existing contracts and “ongoing community work.”

Legislators said the tourism office can tap into $30 million in unused funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to continue managing tourism — equal to half the money that the HTA had requested for the upcoming fiscal year.

All this poses an existential threat to the cultural activities, festivals and community-led volunteer opportunities that have recently made Hawaii such a vibrant place to visit — as well as improved crowd control measures protecting the state’s most fragile places.

Tourism Tensions

The friction between legislators and Hawaii’s tourism office is not new. It reached a boiling point in 2019, when Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents watched it become a case study in overtourism amid 10.4 million annual arrivals. Among the side effects of that unregulated industry: garbage littering popular sights, beaches so crowded you’d have a hard time finding space for a towel, coral reefs suffering from bleaching, traffic snarls caused by selfie-snapping tourists, and sacred places being desecrated by graffiti and spray paint.

For many Hawaiians inside and outside the government, HTA was a victim of its own success marketing the state. And for that, HTA began giving itself a major overhaul.

A leadership of largely white executives was replaced with one almost entirely comprising Indigenous Hawaiians; the agency’s goals were refocused on making tourism more sustainable for everyone.

The “Malama Hawaii” campaign took off. It spread responsible tourism messaging to visitors before during their trips and created sustainable experiences to help visitors be more mindful of the fragility of Hawaii’s beautiful and sacred places. It also helped disperse foot traffic to reduce the harmful impacts of mass tourism.

The changes helped attract more affluent, higher-spending travelers, which explains why in 2023 the state is projected to bring in a record $1 billion in hotel bed taxes. Those guests, in turn, were happy to contribute to educational community-led activities such as beach cleanups in Kauai, tours of a chocolate farm in Oahu and joining cultural walks in Waikiki.

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