Hawaii Tourism Authority considers Oahu plan to handle demand to restrict tourism

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Lanikai Beach was so crowded on a recent Saturday that only the offshore Mokulua islets distinguished the landscape from Waikiki.

It was so overrun by 10 a.m. that visitors and residents were parking in residential neighborhoods up to a mile away. And once they arrived, they had to work hard to find an empty spot on the beach, where tents and colorful umbrellas blocked the ocean breezes and views.

It was the same story on the North Shore, where large tour buses slowed the early afternoon traffic to a crawl. Frustrated residents in the rural area uploaded photos to their social media accounts of empty grocery store shelves and long lines.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino recently made national news when he asked the airlines to “pause” their service to Maui, which has been struggling to balance increased tourism demand with limited resources.

Sentiments aren’t far behind on Oahu, where an increase in landing fees and management of airline arrivals have come up in tourism discussions. While that kind of talk isn’t likely to go anywhere, it’s telling that those concerns are being raised when Oahu still hasn’t fully reopened in the absence of international visitors.

In May, Oahu visitor arrivals were still down nearly 39% from 2019, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

“During the pandemic, people figured out how nice it was not to have so many tourists,” said activist KC Connors, who is a member of the Facebook group Enough Tourists Already. “If Oahu is already filled to capacity at this stage of reopening, what’s going to happen when the international visitors come back?”

The Oahu Destination Management Action Plan, an effort to figure out that and other tourism challenges, is expected to go before the HTA board for a vote July 29, with the plan slated for release to the public sometime in August.

HTA over the past five months or so has been developing the Oahu DMAP in partnership with the City and County of Honolulu and the community. It will detail steps the community, the visitor industry and other sectors deem necessary to improve tourism over the next three years.

HTA Planning Director Caroline Anderson said there’s an urgency to the process. More than 500 people participated in the Oahu meetings, and HTA received more than 300 online responses, she said.

“The public is demanding action, our residents are demanding action,” she said.

According to Anderson, Oahu is the last county to take part in the DMAP planning process, which has been completed on the other main islands and already has resulted in some mitigating actions.

Limiting visitors

“The concerns on Oahu were really similar to the other islands — that ‘there’s too many visitors,’” Anderson said.

The state can’t put a cap on visitor arrivals, but Anderson said HTA is looking at what it and other partners can do to manage visitors, especially in hot spots.

That’s an about-face for HTA, which was created in the late 1990s in part to fill the Hawai‘i Convention Center and put “heads on beds.”

It wasn’t until 2016 that the convention center finally had a profitable year. Then, in 2019, Hawaii broke the 10 million visitor arrivals benchmark — prompting anti-­tourism pushback from some residents.

Joe Ibarra, general manager of The Kahala Hotel & Resort, said he joined the Oahu DMAP steering community as an opportunity to help pivot the state’s top industry.

“HTA, under its current leadership, understands we need to shift. The industry impacts our residents’ way of life, wellness and the sustainability of our future,” Ibarra said. “This is the turning point.”

Anderson said the main takeaway from Oahu’s DMAP process was that participants want managed tourism that protects natural and cultural resources and makes sure “Oahu isn’t turned into a place that is just run for visitors.”

“In terms of limiting visitor numbers, enforcement of illegal vacation rentals can help to manage visitor numbers, and HTA is working with the counties to support their enforcement efforts in addition to looking at changes to land use and zoning,” she said.

Going into the DMAP process, Ibarra said, he “was very concerned about the total number of visitors to the state and specifically the impact of short-term illegal vacation rentals operating on Oahu.”

“I feel that it has negatively impacted local sentiment of our visitor industry as a whole and has contributed to the housing shortage. Established resort destinations are better able to welcome and handle visitor impacts,” he said. “Ensuring that visitors engage with trained hospitality professionals allows my employees work opportunity and a platform for us to educate our visitors on how to properly enjoy our island.”

Anderson said another Oahu DMAP priority is to use reservations or other tools to manage hot spots where tourism has resulted in overcrowding, traffic congestion, degradation of resources and safety hazards, and is creating negative experiences for both residents and visitors.

The pandemic, which virtually wiped out tourism for seven months, seems only to have added to the frustration.

“The impact of the pre-pandemic number of visitors became clearly evident when we experienced the natural behaviors or natural abundance of species,” said Ulalia Woodside, an Oahu DMAP steering committee member.

Woodside, who is executive director of The Nature Conservancy-Hawaii and Palmyra, added: “When places were able to rest from the volume of people, we saw native wetland birds and turtles nesting in what should be their natural habitat. Scientists and community observers recorded stark increases in fish diversity and abundance on reefs across the islands. Water quality in nearshore waters improved.”

Some residents came to enjoy the pandemic-created renewal so much that DMAP participants even placed Waikiki on a list of Oahu tourism hot spots, which also included North Shore/ Haleiwa, Kailua, Hanauma Bay, Laniakea/Turtle Beach, Diamond Head, Lanikai, Makapuu, Kaena Point, Haiku Stairs, Maelieli Trail, Maunawili Falls and Lulumahu Falls.

Airline limits unlikely

“The Oahu Steering Committee (DMAP) members discussed a wide range of topics about possible ways to mitigate the impact of increased travel arrivals on residents and communities,” Anderson said. “One member raised the possibility of increasing the airport landing fees, but this was only part of the overall discussion and wasn’t something the committee was endorsing or seeking to implement. Airport landing fees fall under the purview of the (state Department of Transportation) and not HTA.”

Ross Higashi, deputy director of the DOT Airports Division, said the state cannot impose a limit on visitor arrivals as the Federal Aviation Administration’s airport improvement program requires Hawaii “to make the airports available for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.”

Higashi said his agency also has executed multiple agreements with the airlines and can’t violate contractual arrangements by arbitrarily setting higher landing fees.

“HDOT recognizes the importance of tourism to the state economy and the need to manage the industry in a sustainable manner,” he said. “HDOT will continue to work with other stakeholders to evaluate the current situation.”

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said options for flight restrictions are limited.

“Congress deregulated the airline industry in 1978, enabling airlines to determine when, where and how often they fly,” Gregor said. “And in 1990, Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which greatly limited the ability to impose new curfews and other restrictions on aircraft operations.

“By law, any new proposed restriction has to go through a rigorous review process called the Part 161 process, to determine, among other things, whether it would be arbitrary or discriminatory; create an undue burden on interstate or foreign commerce; interfere with the safe and efficient use of the airspace; or create an undue burden on the national aviation system,” he said.

The FAA allows only three U.S. airports to use runway slots to schedule air traffic: John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in New York and the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The FAA also has formal schedule revenue and approval process at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.

Connors said she believes a case could be made to manage Hawaii’s air traffic because the state is “unique and isolated and has overtourism, which is a health and safety threat.”

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said the carrier believes tourism can be better managed “with sensible re-investment of the substantial tax revenues collected from visitors to improve our infrastructure.”

“Targeted user fees fully dedicated to protecting delicate sites like Hanauma Bay also play a role,” he said. “But broadly raising fees that make Hawaii less desirable for visitors and more expensive for local businesses and residents is not the answer.”

Da Silva said Hawaiian, as the only major airline based in the state, is “uniquely invested in working with stakeholders on solutions to manage tourism that benefit both residents and visitors.”

Since nearly all of Hawaiian’s 6,700-plus employees live and work in the islands, Da Silva said they “experience first-hand the strain on our infrastructure, natural resources and communities posed by rebounding visitor numbers.”

Alaska Airlines spokesman Daniel Chun, who also serves as the HTA Board marketing chairman, said the carrier understands the concerns of local residents and has been working to rebuild its Hawaii network responsibly and educate visitors so they can be respectful travelers as tourism returns to the islands.

“For Oahu, we have a slight decrease in overall seats this summer compared to 2019,” Chun said. “On Maui, we are operating an average of 10 daily flights from the West Coast this summer, which is similar to summer 2019, and we actually have an overall decrease in flights and seats to Maui this year compared to 2019.”

Chun said Alaska recently met with Victorino and Maui County Councilmembers Gabe Johnson and Kelly King to discuss “our continued partnership and ways that we can work together to achieve a more balanced tourism economy on Maui.”

Shifting the vision

Connors said she is hopeful a community-driven solution can be found to address overtourism, but said HTA first must neutralize years of mistrust.

Oahu Steering Committee member Amanda Corby Noguchi said she was skeptical going into the process. Noguchi is the president and creative director of Under My Umbrella, an event planning, marketing and public relations company with a focus on “connecting people to your cause.”

“It seems that in the past, decisions were made by a small group of individuals and some of our most important voices were left out,” Noguchi said.

Noguchi said she joined the effort so that she would be able “to tell my children that I fought to protect their future and this special place that is raising them.”

Noguchi said her company “works closely with numerous grassroots organizations and community leaders who are working to undo the damage that has been done by valuing profit above people.”

“If we follow their lead and shift our vision to protecting our islands, I am confident we will find a future that is more equitable,” she said. “It was important to me that we must no longer perpetuate the idea that aloha is free and expected for visitors, but shift our strategy to appropriately compensating our local residents who so generously share their manao (ideas).”

Ibarra said he supports HTA’s goal of achieving “regenerative tourism,” which goes beyond the focus on the financial bottom line and ensures the wants and needs of local communities are in balance with the industry.

“How we have treated (Hawaii) in the past has already left an imprint for change, and many of our special sites, resources and stories have been lost forever and exist only in memory,” he said. “How we treat our island now and the action plans we implement can hopefully preserve our island home not only for today or tomorrow, but for many years to come.”

Neighbor island tourism management

Destination Management Action Plans are part of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s efforts to manage tourism responsibly and “regeneratively.” The DMAPs focus on actions that can be taken over the next three years to improve tourism. Oahu’s plan is still in the works, but here are some ways the program is already working on the neighbor islands:

Kauai DMAP

>> HTA, the county and Kauai Visitors Bureau created a visitor information safety brochure for incoming visitors at Lihue Airport.

>> HTA is giving the county funds to create retail space and opportunities for Kauai businesses and locally made products.

>> HTA is supporting the county’s efforts to address visitor transportation needs in the wake of the rental car shortage.

Maui DMAP

>> The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau relaunched the free GoHawaii mobile app this summer, using suggestions from the Maui Nui DMAP.

>> HTA held multiple meetings with the Maui mayor’s office, the Maui Police Department, the county planning department, the state Transportation and Land and Natural Resources departments, Haleakala National Park and Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau to mitigate visitor impacts in Hana.

>> HTA worked with DOT’s Airports Division, MVCB and Polynesian Adventure to address transportation issues and lack of rental cars.

Lanai DMAP

>> HTA is funding a Malama Maui County Pledge Card.

>> HTA is partnering with the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center to support adding more content, including information about where visitors should not go, to the Lanai Guide app.

>> A kiosk will be placed at Lanai Airport to provide visitor information, thanks to the MVCB.

Hawaii Island DMAP

>> HTA funding will help with mediation efforts to address challenges at Waipio Valley.

>> HTA is partnering with DLNR and Kupu to support a Pololu Trail Steward pilot program to have community stewards share the history of the area, deter unwanted behavior and assist with public safety.

>> HTA, the county and the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau have been meeting with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to address safety issues at Papakolea (Green Sand Beach) and the surrounding area.

Source: Hawaii Tourism Authority

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