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Residents’ sentiment toward tourism has worsened

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The shores of Waikiki seem to be getting busier, as seen Dec. 13.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The shores of Waikiki seem to be getting busier, as seen Dec. 13.

Even after enduring a collapse of the state’s economy this year, most Hawaii residents aren’t eager for a return to the 2019 tourism numbers.

The downturn in Hawaii tourism has led to thousands of lost jobs, temporary and permanent business closures, and strained social support programs.

Still, a new survey from OmniTrak showed that resident sentiment toward Hawaii tourism has fallen to its lowest level since 1988.

Only 54% of Hawaii residents who took the OmniTrak survey agreed that “tourism has brought more benefits than problems.” Some 34% supported the statement that tourism has been “mostly positive for you or your family.” As many as 67% of respondents agreed with the statement that the “island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

The results were based on a statewide sampling of 1,709 respondents weighted by island size which was conducted Sept. 16 to Oct. 25.

Normally, the number of Hawaii residents who support tourism increases after a crisis. Resident sentiment toward tourism soared to 80%, a 32-year high, in 2010 right after the Great Recession. It also improved after Sept. 11, 2001.

This time around, Hawaii residents see tourism as contributing to the increased health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic. They don’t trust tourism reopening plans, and they don’t think quarantine enforcement has been effective. Also, they still haven’t forgotten the over-tourism concerns that accompanied Hawaii’s rise to a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019.

Chris Kam, OmniTrak president and chief operating officer, said the data shows “residents are largely hesitant to reopen Hawaii to outside tourism and promoting/encouraging travel to the state at this time.”

On Saturday the state had 19,881 travelers, including inter­island and trans-Pacific. That marked the most travelers since Safe Travels Hawaii, the state’s pre-arrival entry program, began Oct. 15. Some 15,874 of the travelers described themselves as visitors, and some 11,156 of them said they were coming for vacation.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the visitor count, which is inching toward Hawaii’s pre-COVID 25,000-a-day average, is a massive economic improvement from when Hawaii tourism was down 99.6% earlier this year.

“Travel has not had an impact on our case counts of any consequence; the numbers have been small,” Green said. “The state of Hawaii has the lowest COVID rate in the country by a big margin, and we opened up our economy.”

Moreover, he said current COVID-19 counts are largely due to community and inmate spread. Research from Drs. Mark Mugiishi and DeWolfe Miller suggests that returning residents are five times more likely to transmit COVID than a visitor, Green added.

Opinions expressed in the Omni­Trak survey are a key reason that the Hawaii Tourism Authority continues to prioritize all four pillars of its strategic tourism plan: natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and brand marketing.

HTA President and CEO John De Fries told HTA board members Thursday that “the eagerness by which we need and want to relaunch the industry often causes us to snap back and put our complete focus on the need for branding and marketing.”

“To a certain point, I’ve encountered some who wish to deprioritize or marginalize the other three pillars of natural resources, community and Hawaiian culture. What I want to reconfirm and restate is that the approach that is put forward by the strategic plan is an integrated approach — all of it is related to branding,” De Fries said.

For several years now HTA has been trying to pivot from its prior emphasis on achieving growth through arrivals or spending gains to more sustainable tourism goals.

Still, resident sentiment about tourism has kept falling for the usual reasons: traffic, strain on natural resources and infrastructure, the dilution of culture and higher living costs. Added to that is the perception, in the midst of the pandemic, that tourism negatively affects health. Some 43% of those surveyed felt tourism created health concerns and the potential for epidemics, as opposed to 25% last year.

Respondents who lived in visitor industry households were more confident that county governments could safely reopen tourism and were doing an effective job with quarantine enforcement.

Still, 43% of all respondents said they agreed with the statement, “People from outside the state of Hawaii should not be visiting Hawaii at this time.”

Paul Brewbaker, principal of TZ Economics, said he’s dumbfounded that some Hawaii residents, especially those living in visitor industry households, don’t understand how vital tourism is to Hawaii’s economic well-being.

“Those that think Hawaii is better off without tourism are clearly not looking at the economic realities around them,” Brewbaker said. “They could not possibly understand the economic catastrophe that has befallen Hawaii in 2020, which makes it clear that Hawaii is not better off with less tourism. It’s the exact opposite: 100,000 people out of work is a self-evident indication of how bad it is not to have tourism.”

Hawaii tourism bottomed out this spring amid COVID-19 fears and lockdowns. By October, HTA data showed that visitor arrivals still were more than 90% below October 2019. In the first 10 months of 2020, HTA reported that visitor arrivals to Hawaii dropped 73.4% to nearly 2.3 million visitors.

Hawaii’s visitor industry- dependent economy has been recovering since the state rolled out Safe Travels Hawaii. However, the results haven’t been as robust as some had hoped, inviting community debate on whether the gains have been worth it.

By year’s end only 2.7 million visitors are projected to have come to Hawaii.

Randy Rarick, former director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, said, “Local residents are questioning the whole deal.”

“We can’t lose sight of the need for better tourism management. Even before the pandemic, most locals were prepared to forgo some tourism profits for a better lifestyle,” Rarick said. “Instead of 10.4 million tourists, maybe we’d be better off with 5 million to 7 million. While we are kick-starting the economy, we need to remain focused on restarting the economy in the right way.”

Rarick said even the low numbers of visitors coming to Hawaii during the pandemic have brought challenges.

Rarick said the reopening of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve already has created traffic jams and complications for surrounding neighborhoods. Rarick also points to the Pipeline Masters, where despite strict protocols a handful of executives recently tested positive for COVID-19, shutting down the event for several days.

“Personal safety has to be more important than making a buck,” he said.

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