Smart Changes to Hawaii Tourism That Include Sustainability, Environmental Preservation and Community Collaboration Should Be Welcomed

In 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tourism in Hawaii hit a record 10.4 million. The pandemic shuttered tourism, the hotels, and all businesses related to the visitors industry. During that time, as tens of thousands went from working at some of the most beautiful places in Waikiki to standing in unemployment lines, workers themselves knew that the industry would never be the same.

Communities started to realize the harmful effects of over-tourism, its toll on the environment, its infiltration into neighborhoods via illegal and legal rentals. A survey by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the agency charged with promoting Hawaii around the world, had about two-thirds of Hawaii residents say they still do not want tourists to return to the islands.

Politicians and the business community alike realized that an overreliance on tourism as the sole driver of the economy leaves the state vulnerable and new industries must be developed.

Leaders in the hospitality industries themselves started to talk about a new kind of tourism, one that is more collaborative with the local community, that promotes sustainability, preserves the environment, one where tourists should learn to respect the islands’ people, culture and history, and lastly one where locals are made to feel welcomed at their hotels.

In other words, most locals now believe in quality tourism, and not just quantity-based tourism.

This seems to be the consensus, and the overall tenor of what a new post-pandemic tourism market should be like in Hawaii.

And it’s not just in Hawaii. Other tourism havens around the world hit hard by the pandemic, are starting to reimagine what their local economies, local geography can look like with a more manageable, quality over quantity tourism market.

One hospitality industry leader joining the almost unanimous chorus among industry leaders emphasizing sustainability, environmental-friendly and greater community collaboration is Joe Ibarra, General Manager of the Kahala Hotel & Resort.

At the Kahala he has spearheaded two programs designed to encourage pono (proper) actions among their guests: the Pono Guest Video and KISCA program (Kahalaʻs Initiative for Sustainability, Culture and the Arts). The new direction the hotel is taking implements far more community outreach and input.

“If we want the tourism industry to continue to thrive, we must do a better job of building community engagement, getting community input, and thinking of how tourism impacts the different areas of our island,” Ibarra said.

Resetting Tourism, Reimagining it is better for the long-term

They say there is a silver lining to everything, even moments of extreme hardship. On the catastrophic meltdown of tourism during the pandemic one silver lining could be — that we get to rebuild a new tourism that most Hawaii residents and businesses can support and not feel simply exploited.

Clearly overcrowding at Hanauma Bay, its damage to the coral reef, is unstainable. So, too, is the case for other overcrowded tourist sites from certain state parks like Diamond Head State Monument to beaches like Waikiki, and others.

Overcrowding that damages the islands natural beauty, overexposure of Hawaii in the long run is not good for business; and that’s ultimately why tourism leaders seem to be on board with the mantra for change.

Avoiding the extremes, smart changes are optimal

While change is good overall for our communities and even the hotel industry in the long term, we should also remember that there are still many families, communities, businesses and government itself (revenues from tourism it needs) that rely heavily on the hospitality industry, and that change must be implemented in a balanced and smart manner, one that’s not too drastic.

And we also do not agree with some who are calling for tourism to be done away with completely. That’s extreme and not beneficial for the state in so many ways. This definitely does not serve our Filipino community, many of whom rely on tourism for work; and in some of these union jobs, they receive good pay for their skill level that will not be easily substituted.

Hiring locals to lead the industry
Another way to look after the best interests of Hawaii is to hire the best and most qualified locals to run key positions in the visitors industry.

When it comes to hospitality and knowing what our communities value, the best resource to tap is our bright and capable local work force. Of course, this doesn’t mean that industry owners and corporations should hire only locals. But the standard, what it has been for decades, is to hire nonlocals for the top positions such as General Manager to lead the biggest hotels in our state.

In this area, hiring of the top brass in tourism to include more locals, there should be balance to changes here as well. If we are talking about the hotel industry being more responsive to and working more collaboratively with local communities as the new direction of tourism, it’s a no-brainer that more locals, including many in our own Filipino community, ought to be considered for top management positions.

We wish GM Joe Ibarra much success at the Kahala Hotel & Resort. You’re an inspiration for our youth and to many in our Filipino community who are currently working hard in our hospitality industry.


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