Hawaii Tourism Authority approves plan to reduce Oahu tourists

·5 min read

Jul. 30—The Hawaii Tourism Authority on Thursday approved a tourism management plan for Oahu that says the agency will work to "decrease the total number of visitors on the island."

The agency intends to meet that goal by "managing the number of visitor accommodations, and exploring changes to land use, zoning and airport policies."

That's the top anchor action in the Oahu Destination Management Action Plan, which HTA developed in partnership with the City and County of Honolulu and the community over the past five months.

HTA Planning Director Caroline Anderson said the plan aims to implement steps that the community, the visitor industry and other sectors deem necessary to improve tourism over the next three years.

"We believe that if residents are not happy, visitors will sense that and not have a good experience on the island, " Anderson said.

Similar plans also have been developed and approved for Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island, although the plan for Oahu is likely to have a greater impact on shaping tourism policy across the state as Oahu gets the lion's share of visitors to the Hawaiian Islands.

The Oahu DMAP also hopes to establish a "regenerative tourism " fee that supports natural resources and addresses unfunded conservation liabilities. The agency wants to increase management and enforcement of sites and trails.

The action plan seeks to manage visitors' use of cars as transportation on Oahu, among other initiatives.

Through the DMAP, Anderson said, HTA wants to develop and implement marketing programs that attract "positive-impact tourists, " who prioritize environment, culture and investing in the local community.

HTA President and CEO John De Fries said he doesn't know what the tourism cap should be, but right now the community is saying that there are too many visitors.

"I don't know (what the number of visitors should be ), but we're going to figure this out. I think the priority piece for us in getting to that answer is getting a handle on the illegal accommodations, " De Fries said. "We see that as No. 1. I'm encouraged by the fact that each of the counties is making this a bigger priority on each of their islands."

It's a bold pivot for the 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. And by the early 2010s, Hawaii tourism leaders and economists were concerned that the visitor industry was fast approaching 8.5 million visitors, a number some warned would put the state at risk of filling its hotel rooms to capacity and constraining future tourism growth.

Then, in 2019, with an assist from the growing vacation rentals market, everything changed. Hawaii broke the 10 million visitor arrivals benchmark—prompting anti-­tourism pushback from some residents that wasn't appeased by the lull in the earlier part of the pandemic.

HTA's effort to better manage tourism comes as domestic visitor arrivals are surging ahead of pre-pandemic times.

Some 791, 053 visitors arrived by air to Hawaii in June, according to preliminary visitor statistics jointly released Thursday by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and HTA.

Total visitor spending in June almost reached $1.44 billion, which was down nearly 12 % from the $1.63 billion attained in June 2019.

Last month, 521, 796 visitors arrived from the U.S. West, exceeding the June 2019 count of 452, 958 visitors by more than 15 %. U.S. West visitors spent $916 million last month, nearly 33 % higher than the $691.2 million spent in June 2019.

Some 247, 382 visitors came to Hawaii from the U.S. East in June, 3 % more than the 240, 223 visitors who came to Hawaii in June 2019. U.S. East visitors last month spent $513.3 million, a gain of nearly 5 % from $491.1 million in June 2019.

Choon James, a North Shore real estate broker who ran for Honolulu mayor in 2020, said, "It feels like there is more tourism here than pre-COVID. It's been that way since a couple of weeks ago when everything started opening up, and that is with consideration that our Asian market has not even returned."

James said she has been concerned about tourism carrying capacity for years, and her fears have not abated during the pandemic.

"I believe the concern of carrying capacity remains the same. The island has not grown any bigger. The beaches have not grown any bigger, " she said. "Tourists are smart enough that they no longer enjoy Waikiki and congested areas. They are actually frequenting local beaches and sprawling into local areas."

While some heralded the bold steps that HTA is taking, others worry that the tourism recovery is still fragile. U.S. travel did not pick up until COVID counts dropped dramatically in the U.S., and there are fears that recent surges and questions about the vaccines' effectiveness could contribute to decline.

Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said he believes Hawaii's domestic tourism market is in a "bubble."

"There are two main reasons for this surge. One is pent-up demand and euphoria in believing things are getting better with COVID, " he said. "The other is there is really no place else to go. Once the rest of the world opens up, the current gains won't be sustainable."

Vieira said he doesn't support raising airline landing fees or implementing new visitor fees, especially when the counties are likely to increase the transient accommodations taxes that visitors pay by 30 %.

However, he approves of efforts to crack down on illegal vacation rentals, which he said have had an adverse impact on tourism tax collections and spending. Vieira opined that illegal vacation rentals are more apt to frustrate residents because they bring visitors into neighborhoods that aren't zoned for visitors or prepared to accommodate them.

Vieira cautioned against overreacting to current domestic visitor counts, especially at a time when arrivals from international markets, especially the high-spending Japan market, continue to lag. That has caused overall June arrivals to be down 16.5 % from pre-pandemic times.

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