Visitor Quality Over Quantity

Quality over quantity. It’s a familiar mantra among politicos and activists in Hawaiʻi who want to reduce the impact of tourism on residents without weakening the bottom line. ...

A respite for locals, or a recipe for gentrification?

Quality over quantity. It’s a familiar mantra among politicos and activists in Hawaiʻi who want to reduce the impact of tourism on residents without weakening the bottom line. 

Courtesy Adobe Stock

The theory is that fewer “higher quality” visitors—code for wealthier tourists—will contribute as much, or more, to our island economy than larger numbers of less affluent—or “low quality”—guests.

Anyone who lives on this island is intimately familiar with the string of problems that residents tend to blame on visitors: crawling traffic, lack of parking, overcrowded parks and beaches, disrespect for local people, consumption of precious resources, and desecration of Hawaiian cultural sites, to name just a few.

Conversely, we all remember how those impacts were diminished when the COVID-19 pandemic brought tourism to a screeching halt in 2020. There was plenty of parking at Launiupoko and no traffic jams on the Pali. South Kihei Road never came to a standstill, unless a turtle was trying to cross. A lot of folks liked it that way. 

A statewide 2020 survey of more than 1,700 residents conducted on behalf of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) found that 65 percent of residents did not want people from outside the state to visit Hawaiʻi. Granted, pandemic fears were a strong driver of anti-tourist sentiment at the time, but even when the virus began to subside, negative local attitudes persisted. 

“We’re seeing an unusual pattern,” said Chris Kam, president and CEO of research firm Omnitrak, which conducted the survey. “This may indicate that over-tourism concerns persist among residents. Simply rebuilding tourism to previous historic highs may not be the recovery residents want to see.” Many Mauians looked at the pandemic as an opportunity to reset our tourism priorities. 

“When COVID hit, all of a sudden people realized what an impact tourism has on our island,” said retired college professor and community activist Dick Mayer. “That woke people up to the effects of tourism.”

Hāna residents may have felt the impact most acutely. Discontent with the sudden return of tourist traffic to their tiny town, many found themselves in conflict with visitors. Some took it upon themselves to form citizen patrols.

“There’s a feeling that we don’t want tourism to come back the way it was,” said Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management, a consulting firm serving the travel industry, and dean of hospitality at Kapi‘olani Community College. “But I don’t think the people see it coming back better, and that’s what has to happen.” What does “better” entail? Just fewer, richer visitors? 

“This is not something new,” Mayer said of the notion of attracting high-end tourists. “This theory goes back to the 1960s when tourism was first developed with the idea of having destination resorts where wealthy people would come.” 

Rather than penetrating into local communities, Mayer explained, the idea was to keep the tourists in resort areas where they would have hotels, restaurants, and activities at their fingertips.

The double whammy of statehood plus the arrival of commercial jet travel to the islands in 1959 opened the floodgates. “It changed from being a very long eight- or nine-hour trip on a propeller-driven plane to a five-and-a-half-hour flight from the Mainland,” said Mayer. “People started coming for long weekends, not just annual vacations.” 

The condo-mania that ensued in the 1970s fueled this trend, as savvy island residents established huis in order to purchase condominiums which they could rent to visitors for passive income. The competition from rental condos kept hotel room rates low, just as new airlines entering the market brought down the cost of airfare. As visitor numbers climbed to a peak in the 1990s, residents complained more and more about their impact. 

“It’s actually in the (2007) Maui Island Plan,” said Mayer of the notion of limiting the visitor-to-resident ratio. He was vice chair of the General Plan Advisory Committee that crafted the plan. “We wanted to emphasize quality over quantity,” he explained, “people who would not have as much of an impact, physically, on the environment. 

“We got wording in there about the ratio that said we should have no more than one tourist for every two residents,” said Mayer. “We put that into the plan as a recommendation from the citizens group, and eventually it was passed by the council and signed by the mayor.”

By the time that ordinance was finally adopted, visitor numbers were already close to that 33 percent mark. At times last year it topped 48 percent, Mayer claimed. “We’re way over the limit that was put into the Maui Island Plan.”

“This has been the plan forever,” said community organizer Lucienne de Naie, a former Maui Tourism Authority Advisory Committee member. “This is nothing new. The tourism industry has been set up to market to high-end tourists for years.”

“We’re kind of building this future that’s geared towards one economic segment,” said de Naie, “and we are going to continue to market to the high-end visitors. That’s just how it goes because that’s what the hotels want.”

How many visitors do we want flying to Maui, and what kind are we looking for? Photo by Dylan Ashe

“It’s really simplistic to say there are too many tourists,” Haas, the marketing consultant, opined. “The more accurate way of describing it is we didn’t manage tourism very well.”

So, how do other popular tourist destinations manage unwanted crowds? 

French Polynesia has drastically limited visitor numbers to Tahiti, Moʻorea, Bora Bora, and the other islands in the chain, even though they see far fewer visitors than we do in Hawaiʻi. They saw about 300,000 nationwide in 2019, pre-pandemic. Maui alone had more than 3 million visitors the same year and about 10.5 million arrived statewide. Under the French territory’s five-year sustainable tourism plan, the Fāriʻiraʻa Manihini 2027, the government aims to set an annual cap of one foreign tourist annually per local resident, or about 280,000 per year. 

They can limit those numbers any way they want, even by cutting back the number of flights allowed to arrive. Mauians can’t. We have to comply with federal law regarding interstate commerce, which doesn’t permit individual states to determine how many flights they allow. But maybe we could charge a big fat “discouragement fee” on every arrival. 

Lawmakers on O‘ahu have taken steps to curb overcrowding by limiting access at Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head State Monument to control crowd size. Maui’s Haleakalā National Park and Waianapanapa State Park in Hāna have instituted reservation systems to prevent overcrowding the beach or creating a traffic jam on the volcano’s summit at dawn.

In addition, we can continue to place moratoriums on new hotel development and crack down on illegal vacation rentals in order to limit the number of available beds. We can levy heavy taxes and fees on rental cars and provide shuttle service to the airports to reduce traffic congestion. And while we can’t stop planes from coming here, we can effectively limit airport capacity by preventing additional runways from being built, or lengthening of the existing one. 

We can also keep room rates sky high by taxing resort and short-term rental properties at a higher rate and using the revenue to mitigate tourism’s impact. But Mayer doesn’t believe it’s necessary to artificially inflate hotel prices. “I think the hotels themselves have done it already,” he said. “They’ve raised their rates considerably over the last four years.”

More than just an attempt to make up for losses caused by the pandemic, Mayer suspects that it’s also a staffing strategy on the part of the hotels. Rather than hiring back their full staff, they raise the rates, keeping occupancy low, thus reducing staffing needs without sacrificing revenue. 

As for the notion that more affluent visitors also tend to be more interested in learning about the culture and more sensitive to local customs, therefore less impactful, Mayer thinks that’s hogwash. “I don’t think there’s a correlation that says those that have more money are more culturally sensitive,” he said. 

De Naie agrees. “That’s a myth,” she said, voicing her experience as a Sierra Club hiking guide for many years. “There are plenty of people of very modest means who are very interested in Hawaiian culture.” 

Millennials, for example, may not have amassed much material wealth, but tend to be conscious travelers because they prioritize experiences over possessions and exploration over luxury. So, they’re more likely to choose a youth hostel or farm stay than a fancy suite with room service. Shouldn’t we be courting them, too?

Resort hotels tend to present a sanitized version of Hawaiian history that celebrates royalty, plantation culture, and displays of material artifacts, de Naie points out. 

She’d like a comprehensive study done to determine how many visitors our infrastructure can reasonably accommodate to inform future debates about development and regulation of the hospitality industry. “Let’s take an honest look at our carrying capacity and determine where we can direct visitors and where we need to really monitor and regulate visitors,” she suggested. 

De Naie’s husband, environmentalist Dan Grantham, offers a simpler perspective. “It seems like if you want something to diminish, raise taxes on it,” he said. “If you want something to grow, lower taxes on it.” 

At the end of the day, is there any risk in courting “quality” visitors? Well, yes, there may be some unintended consequences, beyond having to tolerate snobbery. The cost of living goes up for everyone when Mom and Pop shops and local plate lunch restaurants get squeezed out by art galleries and swanky bistros with pricey wine lists that cater to the one percent. 

And let’s not forget how a lot of us got here. A small percentage of visitors fall in love with Hawaiʻi and opt to move here, impacting the real estate and rental markets. If we only attract the wealthy, they will drive up demand for more expensive homes, increasing development pressure, which is counter to our desire to encourage low cost housing.

Which begs the question, who do you want your new neighbors to be?

Dan Collins

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