Hawaii still has a golden opportunity to become the global leader in sustainable, health and wellness tourism. To do so successfully, we must bridge the resources of our visitor industry with existing government and private efforts to make Hawaii a better place and develop its green economy.
Neil Abercrombie has promised the islands a New Day that will honor our kupuna, address native Hawaiian issues, support education and health care, move the state toward energy independence, advance innovation and, ultimately, revive the economy. These efforts must be integrated with a mission of vital importance: to attract visitors who are respectful of our cultural values and natural resources.
As tourism begins to strengthen along with the tentative global economic recovery, we find ourselves at a familiar crossroads. Just a few years ago, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau talked about encouraging a more refined visitor to come to the islands, asserting that the goal is not simply to increase tourist volume. There was a debate about where Hawaii should place its marketing dollars: arts and culture, more golf or bigger business conventions.
At that point, Global Advisory Services was approached by the HTA to craft a strategic blueprint that would enable Hawaii to become a premier destination for the health and wellness visitor. Multiple working groups involved key members of the native Hawaiian community, the University of Hawaii, hospitals, hotels and spas, the insurance sector and organizations representing integrative medicine and eco-tourism.
A community planning meeting ensued together with representatives from the Office of the Governor and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Members of the HTA board and the state Legislature were also energized, and, once consensus was achieved, the final plan was posted on the HTA website.
Health and wellness visitors may be defined by their intentions when they choose Hawaii as their destination. For some, wellness tourism means meaningful contact with the host culture. Others wish to offer service to the environment and work on an organic farm. There are those who engage in eco-tourism and swim with the dolphins or fly down a zip line. Still others seek enriching educational programs, a spiritual experience or a place to rejuvenate mind and body. There continues to be quite a buzz in favor of the islands working to further develop medi-spas, which integrate modern medicine, traditional healing arts and spa services.
Hawaii has never been successful in its attempts to be the Mayo Clinic of the Pacific. Those who fly to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia or Japan for state-of-the-art modern medical care tend instead to seek out top university centers on the mainland. Even our premier mainland institutions face increasing competition from less expensive global centers of excellence.
While it’s too late to be the first destination out of the block, it’s not too late to be a market leader. Although most have suffered a setback with the economic crisis, Canada, Thailand, Austria and Australia, for example, already have leveraged environmental and cultural assets including, in some cases, indigenous health care traditions to develop unique brands for health and wellness tourism.
A successful visitor industry is not just about flight capacity, room occupancy or dollars spent per day in and around Waikiki. These measures, while important, are shortsighted. Further, Hawaii has long known that sand and surf alone are not enough to remain a premier destination. Low-cost, high-value competition has increased in several destinations and has for years drawn away some who would have otherwise visited our island home.
Hawaii must bring together its vast treasures to cultivate health and wellness tourism and to remain a unique destination, one that attracts visitors aligned with our local culture, who will not just bring dollars to exchange for goods and services, but will also come to experience what is truly of value and seek to leave the islands a better place.
Ira Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit questions to email@example.com.