Tourism officials are already cooking up plans to welcome tourists back to Hawaii. But we won’t be ready for tourists until we have a quick and reliable serology test, effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.
The unbridled tourist growth that took place in our islands prior to the pandemic was unsustainable and harmful to our natural resources. We can take some drastic measures now to build a visitor industry that makes sustainability the centerpiece of tourism.
For starters, put a temporary moratorium on building more hotels and timeshares. Instead, let’s focus on construction projects that diversify the economy and bring good jobs that will be resilient in future crises.
Divert funds from tourism marketing to protect our natural resources. During shelter-in-place, when Hanauma Bay was closed, studies indicated that marine life might be rebounding. In Thailand, the government closed Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands after it suffered under the weight of over-tourism. Hawaii needs to follow a similar model and close beaches, parks, bird and marine sanctuaries when needed.
Limit the number of tourists visiting attractions. The Galapagos Islands are a good model for Hawaii. On arrival, visitors pay a park entrance fee of $100 per person. The funds go toward conservation efforts. Our state parks and trails are in dismal condition. A conservation fee can fund upkeep of trails and wilderness areas.
The Galapagos Islands also limits tour boats to islands. Tour companies are rotated so each gets a turn. Most tour guides are naturalists who educate tourists. We can do the same to protect our marine life and seabird nesting sites.
Tourists are eager to learn about Hawaii’s unparalleled biodiversity and rich culture. Some will even volunteer their time to help reforest mountainsides, plant taro or clean beaches. If we educate our visitors by offering more small group eco-tours, farm-to-table dining and volunteer opportunities, we may find that visitors are more respectful of our cultural sites and endangered wildlife. Tourists who volunteer will leave with the satisfaction of having given back to the aina.
The world is getting brighter and louder and it’s increasingly difficult to escape artificial light and noise. There aren’t that many places left where you can see the Milky Way. The Big Island has some of the darkest night skies in the world. Let’s make sure it remains that way and promote small group stargazing adventures.
We have myriad beautiful trails and wilderness areas on all islands that we should protect and designate as quiet parks. Haleakala is one of the quietest places on the planet. Eliminate or limit helicopters, drones and other man-made noises in wilderness areas, and use an online reservation system to limit visitors to popular trails.
Encourage tour and rental car companies to use electric vehicles, and enable charging at hotels. Hawaii’s clean air, breath- taking wilderness and dark starry skies are priceless and protecting them is not only the right thing to do, it’s good policy.
Many jobs in tourism are low-paying positions that will be replaced with automation. Self check-in kiosks and robots that clean and provide room service are already in use at mainland hotels.
It’s time to sever tourism’s stranglehold on our economy and politicians. The Hawaii Tourism Authority board (HTA) has too many members with ties to hotels. A conservationist, a cultural practitioner and a marine biologist with no ties to tourism should be on the board if HTA wants to move beyond paying lip service to sustainable tourism.
Tourism will always be an integral part of Hawaii’s economy, but we want it to be an industry that puts preservation of natural resources, our residents and way of life above runaway tourism. A clean, green, wild Hawaii is good for everyone.
Shiyana Thenabadu is a photographer, community volunteer and former educator.