Halfway through its “regenerative tourism” plan, Hawaii can generate more tourism revenue despite fewer tourists

A popular tourist destination for its wildlife and natural scenery, Hawaii is promoting a form of “regenerative tourism” that appears consistent with revenue growth for 2022. However, this does not mean that the state wants to reduce tourism activities in favor of nature conservation.

Beach in Hāʻena State Park on the island of Kauai
Beach in Hāʻena State Park on the island of Kauai. New Park Access and Entrance Fees Help Manage Park Visitor Counts | © Ministry of Land and Natural Resources

The state of Hawaii is about halfway through its plans to transition the local tourism industry into regenerative tourism. So far, in the months of January to September 2022, despite fewer tourists, tourists brought in more revenue than in the same period before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hawaiian Islands are so well known for their natural beauty that they welcomed a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019. This raised nearly $18 billion for local businesses, generated more than $2 billion in taxes and supported 216,000 archipelago jobs.

But the Hawaii Tourism Authority found in 2021 that this tourism also “to put pressure on our destinations and communities,” with reference to “negative effect of tourism, affecting not only the quality of life of residents but also the quality of the visitor experience.”

Therefore, in March-April 2021, the Tourism Board published its Destination Management Action Plans, which aim to “rebuild, redefine and reset” Tourism within three years. It wanted to attract and educate responsible visitors, engage local communities more, avoid crowded attractions, and promote the concept of regenerative tourism in the state of Hawaii. The pandemic played a role in this new vision.

Regenerative tourism has gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to the state tourism agency, going beyond the concept of sustainable tourism, which focused on reducing the harm of tourism. With regenerative tourism, tourists have a positive impact on the environments they visit.

Regenerative tourism is bolder and more inspiring. It aims not only to do less harm, but to undo the damage our system has already done to the natural world and, through the application of nature’s principles, create the conditions for life to thrive.” says Anna Pollock, international tourism consultant and founder of Conscious Travel.

To that end, the state of Hawaii has promoted the conservation of its natural resources with marketing and communications investments, resumed partnerships with nonprofit organizations, and accelerated the introduction of entrance fees at a number of natural sites to attract more funding and manage the flow of visitors.

It started before the COVID-19 pandemic and regenerative tourism plans. Much of the north shore of Ha’ena State Park on the island of Kaua’i was closed for a year and a half following historic flooding in 2018. But a redesign of park access and the implementation of a reservation system now allows the number of visitors to Hāʻena and Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Parks to be limited to 900 per day, down from more than 2,000 before the flood.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Land and Natural Resources even increased fees for eight of the fifty state parks in the Hawaiian Islands in hopes of making up for the loss of visitors. Out-of-state park visitors now pay $10 per vehicle and $5 for walk-ins, instead of $5 per vehicle and $1 for walk-ins.

More turnover in January-September 2022 than 2019 despite fewer tourists

Hike to Diamond Head State Monument in Honolulu
Hike to Diamond Head State Monument in Honolulu. Since May 2022, people have to pay to access the park | © Hawaii State Parks

Many of the 50 state parks are free, but the reservation system and entrance fees have been expanded to more locations. For example, it has been established since May 2022 at Diamond Head, a volcanic crater in Honolulu and one of the state’s most popular parks. There is an entrance fee of $1 per walk-in tourist and $5 per vehicle.

Tourism is the archipelago’s main economic driver, growing for eight consecutive years up until the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, tourism accounted for more than 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But protecting its environment can also be vital to Hawaii’s economy, as much of tourism depends on the islands’ natural landscape and resources.

Ninety percent of the 1,000 living species found in Hawaii’s parks are endemic to the archipelago. And because of climate change, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2016 that Hawaii’s coral reef habitats could shrink by as much as 40 percent by 2100.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of reservation systems and entrance fees does not appear to have negatively impacted the tourism industry in 2022 after two difficult years.

From January to September 2022, total visitor spending increased nearly 8 percent compared to the first nine months of 2019, despite a 12 percent drop in tourist arrivals. This was compensated by the higher average daily expenses of the visitors (+26 percent). “Every visitor to Hawaii spends around 2,100 dollars per trip while we remain on our islands”, said Mike McCartney, director at the Department for Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Although conservation education seems to be going well, with the latest updates to destination management plans, obtaining adequate funding still remains a big question. “We know that protecting natural resources is chronically underfunded here in Hawaii and yet is so important to us,” Ilihia Gionson of the Hawaii Tourism Authority told KITV.

According to Paul Drewes, a journalist at KITV, a bill that should have allocated more funding to protect the natural environment died during the last legislative session and there are some concerns about a possible tax on tourists arriving on the islands.

However, if regenerative tourism is about getting people involved in the conservation of natural resources, the Hawaiian vision isn’t really about reducing the number of visitors. The tourism board continues to plan to return to 2019 levels of tourist arrivals by 2025.

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