Good Time to Invest in Hawaiʻi
If you want the best for Hawaiʻi and its people, you should become a tourism elitist.
What I want for Hawai‘i is millions of affluent tourists who each spend lots of money. Budget travelers should visit Florida, Myrtle Beach, Mexico, Thailand or wherever, just not here.
I can live with that discrimination because if we draw lots of bargain travelers, Hawai‘i and its people lose. Budget visitors save money at our expense. Who should benefit most: bargain travelers or our own people?
This is a challenging argument to make – even hypocritical – because many people from Hawai‘i, including myself, travel elsewhere on a tight budget. Nonetheless, we need to put Hawai‘i first by assessing the impact that travelers have here and measure that against how much money those tourists leave behind to helps us cope with their impact. Other elite destinations worldwide are making that same assessment.
What We Can Agree On
We can control that trade-off more than we do. Before I explain how, here are two things most of us agree on. First, we need many millions of tourists to sustain our economy.
Yes, we should continue to try to diversify our economy but that will be a slow process requiring a vibrant existing economy.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in February 2020, just before the pandemic, 127,600 jobs in Hawai‘i were in leisure and hospitality – almost 1 in every 5 jobs. That number bottomed out at 52,400 in September 2020 and we don’t want that pain again.
We can also agree that Hawai‘i is among the world’s elite yet popular destinations, along with Bali, Paris, New Zealand, New York City and others, depending on your personal top 20 list.
The reasons for their popularity differ. People love New Orleans during Mardi Gras, largely because it’s a great place to party with others, including strangers. Crowds are part of the attraction.
That’s not Hawai‘i’s draw; in fact, crowds are a big reason affluent travelers go elsewhere. Making Hawai‘i more exclusive will draw more big spenders.
The main reason people come is for our nature: clean oceans and beaches, beautiful and accessible mountains, and Goldilocks weather. Except we are running a nature deficit and it shows in eroded trails, trash on crowded beaches and much more.
Many elite destinations understand that people come for the natural beauty, so these places charge tourists sensible fees for access and then invest in conservation. The Green Passport report from Conservation International found that Palau’s investment in its natural environment is $92 per tourist, New Zealand’s is $188 and the Galapagos’ is $373. Hawai‘i’s investment is just $9, according to the report.
Paying Back Nature
We are part of the United States, so we can’t charge tourists a fee upon arrival. But some popular natural locations like the Pali Lookout on O‘ahu and Ha‘ena State Park on Kaua‘i collect fees from tourists while letting locals in free. We need more such sites, but it won’t work for most locations.
The main way we can collect money from tourists to invest in nature and infrastructure is through hotel room taxes on both hotel rooms and vacation rentals. Yes, higher hotel room taxes may cost us a million or more budget travelers a year, but businesspeople who rebel against this idea should consider this a smart business move. You often invest in your business: sometimes it’s simply a coat of paint or it might be a total makeover.
You invest because it draws better-paying customers and more sales, even if it means higher prices. You would rather have 100 customers paying $50 each than jam 150 customers inside your store or restaurant if they only pay $20 each. What’s even worse, those customers willing to pay more look through your windows and think, “Ugh, I don’t want to go there.”
In 2019, many elite travelers saw Hawai‘i as shabby and crowded. In the post-pandemic world, when the affluent think twice about visiting crowded cities, Hawai‘i should invest in a nature makeover and discriminate about which visitors we want. It will pay off.