As recently as early 2020, before COVID-19 wrecked the state’s economy, Hawaii was grappling with a very different problem than today’s economic challenges. The question then was what to do with the ever-increasing hordes of tourists.
The 250,000 visitors to Hawaii each day were equivalent to nearly one-fifth of the state’s population. And residents’ attitudes toward them were plummeting, as visitors swarmed beaches, hiking trails and homes in neighborhoods that had become a mecca for vacation rentals.
Then the virus hit. Tourism has been closed under the orders of Governor David Ige. And residents’ sentiment toward the industry has only gotten worse.
At the end of 2020, 57% of residents who responded to an investigation by the Hawaii Tourism Authority in September and October completely or strongly agreed that Hawaii was too dependent on tourism, up from 37% in 2019. Nearly a third completely or strongly disagreed that their “island is run for tourists” at the expense of the local population.
Hawaiian Senator Glenn Wakai echoed others calling for change recently when he expressed frustration at the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s inability to get much traction in remaking tourism to the islands during the closure.
“We lost a year,” said Wakai, who heads the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “They only have vague generalities. They have done nothing to reinvent tourism.
Tourism authority chairman and chief executive John DeFries said the agency had made progress in planning the tourism overhaul. He highlighted, for example, a series of destination management plans developed by the agency, with public input, for Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. A report for Oahu is expected to be completed this summer, he said.
Regardless of what ultimately emerges from HTA’s work, one thing is hard to argue – if revamping tourism is a challenge, doing it during a pandemic is especially difficult. One reason policymakers don’t want to make changes that could jeopardize the industry’s recovery: Hawaii needs jobs.
“If you don’t want visitors to come back, it’s the same as not wanting your neighbor to have a job,” said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Washington’s Economic Research Organization. Hawaii.
Even if it were possible to reinvent tourism, Bonham said, now is not the time.
“The idea that you could somehow, in less than a year, live with an economy with 20 or 30% fewer visitors and have the same number of jobs has never been realistic,” Bonham said. “In the short term, and it could be two or three years, it’s all about tourism in terms of getting back to work.”
Agreements with holiday platforms gather dust
But even where jobs aren’t an issue, change hasn’t happened.
In some cases, the fight against the pandemic has simply absorbed the attention of government officials and business leaders to such an extent that other initiatives have languished. A stalled effort to crack down on unauthorized vacation rentals is a case in point.
Few tourism reforms should have been easier to implement during the pandemic, especially for Honolulu. The issue has the backing of a rare coalition that includes hotel executives, unions, housing advocates and neighborhood groups united against vacation rentals.
However, landlords and investors see vacation rentals as a way for average people and small investors to make money from Hawaii’s tourism industry and want more to be legalized.
Critics say illegal vacation rentals are drawing unwanted tourists to residential neighborhoods, taking homes away from residents and undermining government attempts to limit tourist numbers through land use restrictions. Even tourism executives who have benefited from the recent explosion in tourist numbers from around 8 million a year to more than 10 million in 2019 said the boom was made possible by the proliferation of illegal vacation rentals.
In November, after years of sometimes acrimonious debate, Honolulu reached deals with major vacation rental platforms Airbnb and Expedia, owner of VRBO. Agreements require landlords to include property locations on property listingswhich would allow officials to determine if a property was operating legally.
But the Honolulu city government still hasn’t passed the bylaws and other steps needed to put the agreement into effect, said Curtis Lum, spokesman for the Honolulu Planning and Permitting Department. .
Honolulu has also postponed any action until at least August, he said, meaning an expected increase in summer travelers will likely be able to return to residential neighborhoods.
Kekoa McClellan, Hawaiian spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, acknowledged that at the start of the pandemic, the industry shifted its focus from the problem of short-term rentals to creating policies and procedures for security for hotels. In this context, he said, it’s understandable that Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration has also turned to fighting the pandemic and delayed implementing the Airbnb deal.
“I think they’re attached to it,” he said. “But everyone has limited bandwidth.”
Blangiardi’s office did not respond to an interview request.
Still other efforts are hampered by a lack of common ground and implementation challenges. Consider a proposal to reserve certain recreational areas for residents on weekends. The idea has the support of DeFries, Ige and Mike McCartney, director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. The three discussed the idea last week on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight.”
But the implementation of such a policy is another problem. Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, said in an email that the agency had not begun developing such a policy.
Laura Thielen, a former DLNR president who is now director of the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, said it would be nearly impossible to keep people out of most recreation areas. For example, she says, even trails with seemingly limited access to trailheads can often be reached from other approaches.
Exceptions could be places like the state’s Diamond Head Monument and Hanauma Bay, which is co-managed by the state, city and county.
But she said such a significant change would have to go to the city council and involve plenty of opportunities for public testimony. And it’s almost certain that tourism officials would speak out against locals-only parks, beaches and trails for even a day or two a week.
“I’m concerned about this kind of policy: a locals-only policy,” said Mufi Hannemann, former mayor of Honolulu, now president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.
If the reef in a place like Hanauma Bay needs a break from the bustle of visitors, one solution would be to close it to everyone, he said. “Just to give cover, a locals-only policy: I don’t think that sends the right message.”
The political process often promotes inaction
The political process is also a major impediment to tourism overhaul as it often privileges the status quo. Even modest changes with strong political support have problems.
One of Hawaii’s most powerful lawmakers promoted a bill which would have imposed a so-called “green fee” on travelers to compensate for the environmental impacts of tourism. While destinations like Palau and Bhutan charge such fees, Hawaii does not.
Senator Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, sought to change that. Its proposed fee of $20 per person — arguably modest compared to Palau’s $100 fee — would fund conservation jobs to manage Hawaii’s natural resources.
The measure sailed to the Senate but stuck in the Chamber without a hearingFollowing opposition from tourism businesses and organizations. The bill is technically still relevant and could be taken up again in the 2022 legislative session.
Jack Kittinger, who heads the Hawaii office of the nonprofit Conservation International, extensively researched ways to cover the cost of conservation efforts in Hawaii.
Kittinger said travelers have shown a willingness to pay for a COVID-19 test to come to Hawaii, as required by Hawaii’s Safe Travels program. This, he said, shows that visitors would be willing to pay lower fees.
“Do you want a study on willingness to pay? he said. “You have it. It exists.”