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Hawaii Tourism is at a 'Tipping Point' of Overtourism

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 3/20/2019 Alex Temblador
a large body of water: Aerial view of Hawaii's Lanikai Beach © segawa7/iStock/Getty Images Plus Aerial view of Hawaii's Lanikai Beach

While most U.S. travelers are excited about Southwest Airlines' 28 daily flights to Hawaii that will become available by the end of May, many in Hawaii are concerned how the influx of visitors will affect the island if a plan is not put in place to accommodate them.

“We’re not at a crisis point yet. We’re at a tipping point. We have so many visitors, we need to get serious about creating management programs,” Frank Haas told WFAA. Haas is a travel industry veteran who is the former marketing director at the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the former Assistant Dean at the University of Hawaii.

Haas, James Mak, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and Paul Brewbaker, an economist for the Bank of Hawaii, wrote a nine-page white paper last month detailing how Hawaii has failed in managing its tourism.

The white paper begins: “Despite a string of record visitor arrivals now totaling almost ten million annually, Hawaii tourism shows signs of trouble.”

“Hawaii tourism is at risk both for its ability to maintain an acceptable quality of life for residents, quality of experience for visitors, and economic vitality for the state. Hawai‘i tourism has been negatively affected by rapid growth, diminishing economic contributions and the lack of a comprehensive tourism management plan,” it added.

The white paper focused on the over-tourism of the state and explained how even with more tourists visiting the islands, they’re spending less and less money, which isn't good for the economy.

“While ‘over-tourism’ has become a buzzword resident concerns about ‘too many tourists’ often stem from specific ‘hot spots’ of congestion that have not been effectively managed,” the paper explained.

“We wrote about what a lot of [local] people are already thinking,” Brewbaker said.

With the new Southwest Airlines flights, Hawaii is expecting to receive 4,000 more people a day and the governor is slightly concerned about this.

“We definitely are concerned about managing the number of visitors we have here. We are definitely working to do that,” Gov. David Ige, D-Hawaii, said. The Hawaii Tourism Authority passed on the opportunity to be interviewed.

The Southwest routes are not entirely bad for Hawaii, according to Mak and Haas.

“So, the focus is now trying to attract more high-spending visitors,” Mak said.

“First-time visitors spend more than repeat visitors,” Haas said. “Part of what Southwest [Airlines] brings to the party is bringing in visitors from relatively different markets—the San Jose’s of the world, where we’re more likely to get first-time visitors.”

“If [Southwest Airlines] attracts first-time visitors from these smaller markets, it’ll be good for us. The other aspect for Southwest coming to Hawaii is basically the benefit of competition on inter-island travel. We basically only have one carrier,” Mak said.

Now that Hawaiian Air has some competition with Southwest, Mak predicts Hawaiian Air will drive down their inter-island air transportation prices, which will entice locals to travel among the islands, as well as their flights from stateside states which could help tourists spend more money when they arrive to Hawaii.

All in all, Brewbaker, Haas and Mak are calling for a state level plan for tourism, something that’s not in effect now, but could assist with over-tourism and take full economic advantage of the influx of visitors.

Mak said, “I think what we’ve done is sow the seeds. It may take a decade before we see change.”

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