The Goal: Tourism That Regenerates Hawai‘i, Not Degrades It

A program that limits access at Kaua‘i’s Hā‘ena State Park and raises local dollars is considered a model for places inundated by visitors.
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Photo: Aaron Yoshino

09 23 Hb Regenerative Tourism Sherman Maka

Sherman Maka is part of the destination management team at Hā‘ena State Park. He helps educate visitors about the park’s history and how to be safe and respectful. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

At 8:40 a.m., Sherman Maka, a resident of Kaua‘i’s northern moku of Halele‘a, greets 30 shuttle riders disembarking at Hā‘ena State Park.

The visitors, most dressed in hiking attire, take in views of vibrant lo‘i kalo that lead to some of the most popular beaches and trails on the island.

Maka speaks passionately to the group, even about mundane matters like the shuttle schedule. He tells them that lifeguards are on duty and to make sure they have enough water, and the times they must leave certain trail locations to make the last shuttle at 6:40 p.m.

The 62-year-old Native Hawaiian grew up living off the land and fondly recalls the days before the North Shore became a destination for tourists, multimillion-dollar properties and vacation rentals. As a young man, he never thought he’d be educating visitors on proper behaviors, but a 43-year hospitality career changed that notion.

“To encourage and educate the visitor industry on everything Hawaiian as much as we can; mālama the ‘āina; mālama the kahakai, from mountain to the sea, take care of it; respect the land: It has been fulfilling,” he says.

His role is part of a new destination management system that’s being touted as a successful community-led solution to overtourism. The 65-acre state park is the first to set a daily visitor cap, and nonresidents must make reservations and pay for entry. They also have to pay to park their own car or to ride the affiliated North Shore Shuttle from Waipā. There’s also increased law enforcement to deter illegal parking. Signs, shuttle messaging and Maka’s talks educate visitors about the area.

Those who created it say the Hā‘ena system has resulted in a more equitable relationship between tourism and the local community. Two nonprofits, Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana and the Hanalei Initiative, manage the park. Their efforts have helped Native Hawaiian lineal descendants like Maka to be part of the overtourism solution and encouraged locals to return to the park.

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Joel Guy, who grew up in Hā‘ena and is the executive director of the Hanalei Initiative, says the new system has encouraged locals to visit after decades of being pushed out. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

“You just become overwhelmed with gratitude,” says Joel Guy, who grew up in Hā‘ena and is the executive director of the Hanalei Initiative. “You’re part of a process that says early on, there were way too many people, we weren’t even going there anymore. And now people go back to Kē‘ē (Beach) who hadn’t been there in decades.”

Lessons learned from this system are being shared with hot-spot communities around the state. It’s all part of Hawai‘i’s transition to a regenerative tourism model that aims to contribute to the Islands’ cultural, natural and community well-being and repair the harm done by tens of millions of visitors over the years.


Increasing Visitors

Discussions and concerns about overtourism in Hawai‘i are not new, says Frank Haas, president of Marketing Management, a hospitality-focused consultancy. He says plans in the 1970s, when tourism became the state’s primary industry, addressed the need to manage growing visitor arrivals, which by decade’s end had reached nearly 4 million visitors a year.

“It’s just that there was never an urgency to it until we got so big and conditions changed so that people were really feeling that,” he says. Haas was the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s VP for tourism marketing in the early 2000s and a consultant for HTA’s current strategic plan.

Those changed conditions included increased resident frustration with the local tourism industry, which accounted for a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019. More and more tourists were venturing out of resort areas in search of new and at times dangerous adventures, and residential neighborhoods were facing an explosion of unregulated vacation rentals.

Over the years, Hawai‘i has strived for a visitor industry that’s environmentally friendly and culturally sensitive, and one that mitigates the impacts of millions of visitors – so-called “sustainable tourism.” But since 2020, momentum has increased for a tourism model that’s regenerative, rather than just sustainable. To reflect that change, HTA’s 2020-2025 strategic plan largely focuses on destination management, and its marketing efforts target high-spending, low-impact visitors.

“For me, when we think about tourism, it should be done in a way that allows our future generations to call Hawai‘i home for a long, long time,” says Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, chief brand officer at HTA. And that home, he says, should be in better condition than it is today. “It’s not just about preserving what is left, it’s about remediating, re-enhancing, regenerating what was partially lost or impacted.”

In 2021, HTA underwent a reorganization to emphasize that new direction and launched its Mālama Hawai‘i program to target mindful travelers. HTA videos encourage visitors to give back to the destination and direct them to the Mālama Hawai‘i website, where 50 partner hotels offer incentives to guests to volunteer with local nonprofits.

The shift to regenerative tourism also gives residents a greater say in how tourism is rebuilt and redefined. During the pandemic, HTA worked with community members, business owners, farmers, hotel executives and cultural practitioners to create destination management action plans for each island.

“The DMAPs are a framework for us to be able to engage communities, have a dialogue, really listen, get out there in person and see what communities are asking for, and then partnering with them to find solutions on some of the hot spots that exist,” Ka‘anā‘anā says, “and also finding other ways to empower them to tell their story.”

The three-year plans stretch into 2025 and emphasize visitor education, community-led management solutions, increased local food and product purchases, and investments in programs to support the perpetuation of Hawaiian culture. The plans also rely on the collaboration of government agencies and private and community organizations.

Some state lawmakers have long criticized HTA’s management of tourism and some even tried during the 2023 legislative session to replace the agency with a new tourism management entity. One challenge, according to Haas, is that HTA doesn’t have the statutory authority to enforce collaboration. He and others have argued that what is needed is a management approach based on policies that assign well-defined roles and functions to various government agencies.

“Tourism is unique in how complicated it is. It affects the community, it affects the economy, it affects natural resources, it intrudes on neighborhoods,” he says. “So you have to find some model where you can cut across all the silos to manage it properly.” One example of that model is at Hā‘ena State Park.


Empowered Community

Chipper Wichman and Presley Wann of Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana sit comfortably under a pop-up canopy surrounded by 5 acres of restored lo‘i kalo in Hā‘ena State Park. They say the area was the breadbasket of the surrounding Hawaiian community for 800 or more years. It was eventually turned into a state park, but with no management, invasive trees and plants overwhelmed the traditional landscape.

As the land deteriorated, many Native Hawaiian families lost their connection to Hā‘ena. So, in the mid-’90s, Wichman, Wann and other founding members of the nonprofit started considering how they could once again care for the land.

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Photo: Aaron Yoshino

“The Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana, we’re all lineal descendants of this place, so it seems so natural to want to take care of it,” Wann says.

Under a curatorship agreement with the State Parks Division, the hui cleared and cleaned the area, mostly by hand. They ripped out invasive trees, unearthed ancient stone walls and restored the traditional waterway. Along the way, they cultivated kalo for the community and created educational programs to reconnect the next generation.

The hui’s long-term goal was to manage the park. They spent decades helping the State Parks Division create a master plan for facilities and infrastructure improvements and crowd control.

That master plan’s implementation was fast-tracked after a record-breaking storm in 2018. “The flood created the opportunity to not have to scale back from 3,000 people a day but to scale up from zero,” Wichman says.

The hui began managing the park under a revocable permit in 2021. While it focused on its farm and cultural restoration work, oversight of the management system was subcontracted out to the Hanalei Initiative, which had launched its North Shore Shuttle in 2019 to reduce the number of cars on Kūhiō Highway.

The two nonprofits share the park’s parking and shuttle revenues to support operational costs and park maintenance. Two of the hui’s next big projects are to build a restroom at the eastern end of the parking lot and restore the sand dunes that contain ancient burials. Wann says the revenue also supports the hui’s youth education programs, which reach about 1,200 keiki a year.

Meanwhile, the Hanalei Initiative has used its revenue to host an engineering class and to support community organizations with micro grants.

Together, the hui and Hanalei Initiative created 35 jobs for parking attendants, laborers, shuttle drivers, administrators and cultural practitioners. Twenty-one of those positions are filled by North Shore residents. And some are held by lineal descendants of Hā‘ena.

“Regenerative tourism in my mind is where tourism leaves a community and a resource better than you found it,” Wichman says. “It’s regenerating. That’s what this is doing here – those community jobs, the ‘āina right here, this ‘āina kūpuna that our ancestors farmed and lived off of in harmony with for hundreds and hundreds of years – it’s better today because of this model.”

He adds that he’s proud Hā‘ena can be a road map for other communities.

“Across the pae ‘āina, across the state, now we’re all looking at this concept of scaling back and creating an equitable balance, and this term regenerative tourism is now kind of becoming a buzzword,” he says.


Other Community Hot Spots

Earlier this summer, the key players involved in creating the Hā‘ena management system released a 60-page handbook on how to replicate their model. What’s been crucial, they say, is that communities build trust and mutual respect with other organizations and government agencies.

Alan Carpenter, assistant administrator of the State Parks Division, says his relationship with Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana began about 30 years ago when he was a DLNR archaeologist documenting Hā‘ena’s historical and cultural resources. And Wichman says the hui’s curatorship work showed the state that the group was committed to its love of place and community.

Strong working relationships were also built among community members, government and visitor industry leaders to help implement the Hā‘ena master plan.

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Hā‘ena State Park used to see up to 3,000 visitors a day; today, it has a daily visitor cap of 900. Kamealoha Hanohano. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

Rep. Nadine Nakamura, who represents Kaua‘i’s North Shore, facilitated over 200 hours of meetings that led to the creation of new laws to help deter illegal parking on Kūhiō Highway and gave DLNR flexibility in setting parking and entry fees. Another new law signed this summer allows the state parks to enter into long-term contracts with community nonprofits to operate parking lots and concessions.

“That’s a huge shift, right, because people want to take part in managing their own parks, their own communities,” Carpenter says, adding that the new laws pave the way for other communities to follow Hā‘ena’s lead.

He says Kealakekua on Hawai‘i Island and Wai‘ānapanapa on Maui are looking at Hā‘ena’s example. And Wichman says lessons learned are being shared through the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance’s Ahupua‘a Accelerator Initiative, which brings together six ahupua‘a focused on restoration efforts. The hope is that the work at Hā‘ena will compress the timeline for other communities seeking change.

And community-based efforts are happening outside of state parks too. For instance, HTA initiated a pilot program for four part-time community stewards in Pololū Valley, a visitor hot spot near Hawai‘i Island’s northern tip. Those stewards inform visitors about the valley’s importance and dangers. The program is now managed by the state DLNR.

HTA and Hawai‘i County also funded four community stewards in July at Waiuli and Lehia beach parks under the Keaukaha Steward Pilot Program, and the agency is working on another community-based program in East Maui.

HTA’s board of directors also voted at the end of July to approve the creation of a Destination Stewardship Branch, further increasing the organization’s focus on tourism management. Ka‘anā‘anā will lead the new branch as chief destination stewardship officer.


Regenerative Experiences

The sound of squelching mud repeats with each footstep as I move closer to a 10-by-12-foot lo‘i kalo in Uhau‘iole Valley, in the eastern interior of Kaua‘i. Noa Mau-Espirito and two other farmers have been cultivating kalo here for their families and community.

The farm is about a five-minute walk from a parking lot for three state-managed trails, so Mau-Espirito says he’ll occasionally invite inquisitive visitors to help in the lo‘i. In the process, they’ll get a lesson about Hawaiian history and traditional farming practices. Mau-Espirito’s work is part of a visitor engagement program being created by the Hanalei River Heritage Foundation.

Kamealoha Hanohano Pa-Smith, the foundation’s program administrator, watches as Mau-Espirito pulls weeds. “These are appropriate actions for visitors to be involved in,” he says. “We want them to know the journey behind what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” As we talk under the shade of a banana tree, Pa-Smith points out that the breeze blowing from the northeast is called moa‘e lehua.

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From left, Kamealoha Hanohano Pa-Smith, Noa MauEspirito and his daughter. Mau-Espirito grows kalo in Uhau‘iole Valley, while PaSmith works at a nonprofit that encourages tourists to work on that farm. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

The nonprofit’s work is supported by the Hō‘ihi Grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The program gave nearly $1 million to seven Native Hawaiian organizations in fiscal year 2022. And it acknowledges that tourism has long been an extractive and transactional experience for Native Hawaiians.

Ka‘aleleo Wong, Hō‘ihi Grant manager with the Interior Department’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, says the grant is meant to encourage a mindful tourism model that accurately showcases Hawaiian culture and traditions.

“We are out here to show that there’s a way to solve these issues by practice,” PaSmith says. “In Hawaiian we say ma ka hana ka ‘ike – you can learn and you can gain knowledge by doing. So that’s where my heart is.”

And while visitors get to engage in meaningful experiences, the grant also benefits locals and Native Hawaiians, says Lia Sheehan, a foundation board member.

“We’re giving purpose to our folks on the island who can be growing their own food and telling their own stories and just validating their own life and livelihood and existence,” she says. She and Pa-Smith agree that Kaua‘i’s other popular destinations are ripe, as well, for community-hosted interpretative visitor education programs.

Over the summer, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement began work on its $27.1 million contract with the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority to provide stewardship services. Kūhiō Lewis, the nonprofit’s CEO, says the contract is an opportunity for Native Hawaiians to be seen as leaders.

Between 2015 and 2019, nearly 49,000 Native Hawaiians worked in tourism, according to a 2021 report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. That’s about 20% of all tourism workers.

“We are tourism, we are the culture,” he says. “We are the backbone of the industry and I think our value in the industry hasn’t necessarily been up to par with what we bring to the table. With a Native Hawaiian organization now being at the forefront, there’s a lot more people coming forward because they’re starting to see that opportunity.”


Building Capacity

As Hawai‘i continues its shift to regenerative tourism, the Hanalei River Heritage Foundation and other organizations recognize that better bridges need to be built to connect tourism and community groups.

“I think the trick is going to be we still have to build the system where the people of the place are able to truly be the hosts,” Sheehan says.

Pa-Smith adds that he’s been proactive in talking with tourism organizations about how his nonprofit can work with them, and cited efforts by other groups to do the same, on a larger scale.

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Pa-Smith leads the way into Uhau‘iole Valley, where tourists are encouraged to work in lo‘i. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

The Hanalei River Heritage Foundation was one of 29 community groups that participated in the 2021 Kaiāulu Ho‘okipa Impact Studio Cohort put on by the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and travel2change, a Hawai‘i nonprofit that connects visitors to volunteer experiences.

Cohort members learned about good business practices and how to accurately present Hawaiian culture while developing their regenerative experiences. They also received mentorship for three months after six-week training.

“We believe in the potential of our community leaders who are already doing the work to be able to come up with the solutions, and just because they’re not always super mainstream doesn’t disqualify them from having the answers,” says Mondy Jamshidi-Kent, who was travel2change’s executive director until March 2023. She is now principal of Naupaka Pacific, a consultancy that helps nonprofits and social enterprises offer regenerative tourism experiences.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement already helps businesses and nonprofits build capacity and access financial support through its Pop-Up Mākeke online marketplace, financial counseling, loans and business classes. Now, using its existing tools, it’s pivoting to better help local organizations get involved in tourism, Lewis says.


Sustained By Tourism

Locals’ views of tourism are starting to improve, according to HTA’s latest resident sentiment survey from fall 2022.

About 44% of the 1,950 residents surveyed said that tourism was being better managed on their islands, up 5 percentage points from fall 2021. And 57% of respondents agreed that tourism’s benefits outweighed its problems, up 8 percentage points from a record low the prior year.

However, visitor numbers are almost back to their pre-pandemic peak, with arrivals each month between January and June this year at least 93% of what they were during the same month in 2019.

“I think we universally agree that 10 million visitors a year is too many, but we also sort of have to agree our economy is dependent on the tax base that’s generated from tourism dollars,” says Tyler Iokepa Gomes, chief administrator of Kilohana, CNHA’s tourism arm.

In 2022, the industry generated $2.24 billion in state tax revenue and supported 197,000 jobs, according to HTA. And in June 2023 alone, nearly 890,000 visitors spent $2 billion – 22.7% more than four years ago.

The key is figuring out how to make sure tourism is contributing more than it’s extracting, Gomes says. Regenerative tourism by itself won’t solve Hawai‘i’s high cost of living issues, but it can help, he says, by creating job diversity and wage and hiring equity for Native Hawaiians, among other things.

“I think if you were to ask me what does the future look like for tourism, it’s one in which our community is being sustained by tourism – where our farmers don’t need to struggle to farm, where our businesses aren’t clinging on to life,” Lewis says. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry and there’s no reason why it can’t regenerate our community and provide for them and their families, their future.”

Back at Hā‘ena State Park, Maka, the Hanalei Initiative employee, is somber. He says Kaua‘i has been flooded with visitors since pandemic-closures lifted. And because the park now requires advanced reservations that quickly sell out, tourists are flocking instead to nearby and sometimes more dangerous beaches.

“In order to save this place, the community has to really come together, the county has to come together or even the state, and slow these people down, really slow them down because there’s just too much people,” he says. “We have to start slowing them down now because we have to save (these places) for when we’re gone.”


Tourism Can Be a Catalyst for Local Agriculture

The 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, situated on a steep hill, was built to blend into its surroundings. On one roof is an organic chef’s garden; others are lined with thick pili grass to help insulate the rooms below and to reduce stormwater runoff.

Sustainability and regenerative travel are key to the 1 Hotel brand. Alexis Eaton, director of marketing, public relations and programming at the luxury property, says when she first joined the hotel in June 2022, she and other leaders visited nearby farms to see how they could work together. Those visits ended up shaping the property’s culinary and wellness offerings.

“Instead of saying like, oh, we need to source this, we need to source that, we took the approach of what is available here, and then started to build from there,” she says.

About 85% of the ingredients used by 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay’s signature restaurant, 1 Kitchen, are sourced from Hawai‘i. Kaua‘i vendors include Mālama Kaua‘i, Moloa‘a Organica‘a, Aloha Honey Bee Farm, Buena Vista Gardens, Kainoa Fishery and Jerry’s Rice Farm.

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Dishes made at 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay with locally grown ingredients.| Photo: courtesy of 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay

“We’re paying significantly more for rice, but we’re able to work with him (Jerry’s Rice Farm),” says Corrine Hanson, who until June was corporate director of sustainability and impact at SH Hotels and Resorts, which operates 1 Hotel. “Maybe he can scale and he can grow. The fact that we have a large enough business to be the catalyst for some of those things really makes me feel like we’re contributing in a way I would hope we could.”


Tourists Willing to Pay More

A 2021 study co-authored by UH professor Jerry Agrusa found that U.S. visitors to Hawai‘i are willing to pay more for locally grown food, as well as for experiences that are respectful of Hawaiian culture and sustainable tourism.

Hawai‘i’s tourism industry in 2019 contributed an estimated $98 million in direct visitor spending to Hawai‘i’s agricultural industry, according to a July 2022 DBEDT report. That climbs to $399 million when indirect visitor spending and spending by workers in tourism or other supportive industries are included.

Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, chief brand officer for the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, says that money helps local producers continue growing food for residents, and serves as a baseline for the positive impact that visitors have in diversifying the economy.

Agrusa, who’s conducting a second study on locally grown food, says small farmers can’t consistently meet the volume and quality that local hotels and restaurants need.

One solution to that is to have farmers aggregate their products for large purchasers. In Kahuku on O‘ahu, the 468- acre Kuilima Farm essentially acts as a food hub for its 11 tenant farmers and Pono Pacific, the farm’s manager. It produces about 2,000 pounds of produce a week, about 800 of which are sold to the five restaurants at the 408-room Turtle Bay Resort.

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Produce from Mālama Kaua‘i. | Photo: courtesy of 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay

Ramsey Brown, VP of diversified agriculture at Pono Pacific, says the hope is that Kuilima Farm will grow into a true food hub model so its tenant farmers can also collaboratively serve other large purchasers.

Another challenge: Institutions want local food but don’t want to pay premiums for it, so they’ll opt for imported food that’s cheaper, says Pomai Weigert, a board member and trainer with the Hawai‘i Agritourism Association. She’s also an agribusiness consultant with GoFarm Hawai‘i.

“When you even just look at hotel price points in Hawai‘i, hotel room rates, people are spending thousands of dollars a night, but that doesn’t trickle all the way down” to the farmers, she says. “They’re still trying to keep their food costs low.” She says hotel leaders need to prioritize buying more local food, even if it costs more.

In the spring, over 20 hotels, restaurants, schools and nonprofits signed the O‘ahu Good Food Pledge to use more locally sourced food. Ka‘anā‘anā says this is an example of how destination management action plans are guiding HTA’s work to make sure tourism is supporting other industries. “

Tourism also needs to be catalytic – it needs to be something that causes other sectors of our economy to grow,” he says.


Combining Tourism and Agriculture

Using locally grown food in hotels and restaurants is just one way the tourism and agricultural industries intersect. Agritourism also includes farm, ranch and nursery tours; agricultural fairs and festivals; farmers markets; and farm-related accommodations.

Weigert says agritourism provides a way for visitors to help farmers grow more food for Hawai‘i’s residents, and that it’s more relevant than ever. She specializes in helping rural communities to create and package authentic visitor experiences that are focused on culture and that give back to local people.

“With agritourism, it’s agriculture first,” she says. “It’s not tourism first. So that’s also the big shift, and that is also why more rural and cultural communities are more open to it.”


Categories: Community & Economy, In-Depth Reports, Sustainability, Tourism