FILLED WITH STUNNING natural beauty, a vibrant Indigenous culture and plentiful wildlife, it’s no wonder that visitor numbers are surpassing pre-pandemic levels as people rush back to experience the magic of the Hawai’i. But pre-pandemic, the Hawaiian Islands were already buckling under the weight of overtourism. Crowded highways, long grocery store lines, environmental damage and a short-term rental crisis threatened the quality of life for approximately 1.5 million people who call Hawai’i home.
Hawai’i has developed The Mālama Hawai‘i program as the basis of its post-COVID tourism program. Mālama—which directly translates to “give back”—is used in the context of tourism that when you give back—to the land, the ocean, the wildlife, the forest, the fish pond, the community—you’re part of a virtuous circle that enriches everything and everyone. Hotels and operators are offering special discounts and a free night when you take part in a volunteer opportunity, ranging from reforestation projects to self-directed beach clean-ups and Hawaiian quilting sessions.
Individually, each island is also developing programs including the Big Island’s Pono Pledge or the Mālama Maui County Pledge to minimize the impact of tourism by educating tourists on Hawai’i’s fragile ecosystem and how to visit the islands sustainably before or upon arrival.
What islanders want
But if you ask Jamie Sterling—a professional big wave surfer and surf guide, who’s a life-long resident born and raised on Oahu’s fabled North Shore—it’s more crowded than ever and locals are stressed out.
“We want tourism, but regulated,” he says. “There’s no quota on how many people can come to the North Shore per day, it’s just a free for all. It’s almost likeovertourism is being promoted because they’re allowing airlines, resorts and hotels to offer post-pandemic bargain deals to come to Hawai’i to recuperate from the loss that they had last year.”
Maui County’s mayor, Michael Victorino met with several airline representatives and asked that they voluntarily reduce the number of flights they have scheduled for Maui in hopes of reducing the influx of tourists flocking to the island post-pandemic, which has already surpassed 2019’s travel numbers.
“We’re getting a lot of tasteless, cheap tourists and those are the people that are messing with the wildlife, touching the turtles and seals, littering on the beaches, stopping in the middle of the highway to take photos without pulling over completely, disregarding the rules or regulations and are simply uneducated,” says Sterling. “During covid, there was more seaweed on the rocks because tourists weren’t walking on them. The coral was more vibrant and the water was clearer—there was no tourism to speak of. It was tough on business, but it was a nice pause for nature,” he adds.
Sterling suggests a solution to the problem: educating incoming tourists on the do’s and don’ts of respecting ecosystems, local customs and teaching them a little about the ocean to prevent drownings. During his surf lessons, a big part of the experience is teaching etiquette about where to surf, how to be mindful of other surfers, entry and exit of the water, where the current is flowing, where the rocks are, where the reef is, and all the safety hazards. “I also educate guests so they’re prepared to be in the location where I’m taking them surfing. How to avoid turtles, not to walk on the rock and trample on the seaweed and flora that the turtles eat as their source of nutrition,” he adds.
A house for whom?
Another issue is short-term vacation rentals—one of the most popular ways to holiday on the islands. Rentals are problematic for citizens because of housing costs which are next to impossible to afford, and little revenue flows back to the toursim boards or municipalities whose infrastructure is being strained.
Many Americans purchase beachfront properties in Hawai’i as their second home, then end up renting them out the majority of the time to transient tourists, or leaving them vacant. “This means locals can’t afford two- or three-bedroom homes, so instead people are renting out rooms in houses, so there are multiple cars in the driveways which are spilling out onto the streets,” Sterling adds. “I used to be able to ride my bike down the street but now it’s cluttered with cars.”
Sterling recommends staying in a hotel because they are in areas that are commercially zoned for business. A lot of the vacation rentals are being rented illegally, for short-term in a residential zone that’s not zoned for commercial activity, causing noise pollution.
“The County governments have been implementing rules to limit illegal vacation rental units outside of the resort areas," says Lorenzo Campos, account director of Hawaii Tourism Canada. "These rules have begun to reduce the number of available units and we are watching what effect it has on the rental rates.”
“There’s a lot of entitlement on both ends, with tourists and locals," argues Sterling. "It all comes down to respect. If you do rent an Airbnb in a residential area, be mindful that next door there’s likely a house full of kids waking up at 7 a.m. to go to school, or nine-to-fivers getting up for work.”
The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is not ignorant to the issues and resident sentiment—one needs only to view the impassioned comments left by citizens on its Facebook posts. Since 1999, the HTA has conducted 17 Resident Sentiment Surveys which measure the public's attitudes toward tourism in Hawai'i. The 2021 RSS revealed that the majority of respondents (70 per cent) believe "tourism is worth the issues associated with the industry."
In late July, the HTA announced a major organizational restructure to better support the islands' 2021-2023 Destination Management Action Plans. Tourism objectives do include making "positive contributions to the quality of life for Hawai‘i Island’s residents" and supporting "the maintenance, enhancement and protection of ... natural resources."
While time will tell how effective the HTA's actions plans are (residents will be sure to let them know) it's important that visitors who truly love Hawai'i don't unintentionally erode what they love most about it. So, what else can travellers do to leave a lighter footprint?
Sterling offers some suggestions: “Don’t be afraid to pick up a piece of rubbish while you’re on the beach. Be kind when you’re on the road; if you want to stop and take a picture, pull completely off the highway instead of stopping in the road and don’t jaywalk into the middle of traffic. Come, enjoy the nature, but you don’t have to geotag or draw a map for people to get to the special places. Make it a little hard for people otherwise everything gets exploited.”
Take the Pono Pledge
I pledge to be pono (righteous) on the island of Hawaii.
I will mindfully seek wonder, but not wander where I do not belong.
I will not defy death for breathtaking photos, or venture beyond safety.
I will mālama (care for) land and sea, and admire wildlife only from afar.
Molten lava will mesmerize me, but I will not disrupt its flow.
I will not take what is not mine, leaving lava rocks and sand as originally found.
I will heed ocean conditions, never turning my back to the Pacific.
When rain falls ma uka (inland), I will remain high above ground, out of rivers and streams.
I will embrace the island’s aloha spirit, as it embraces me.
Lawe i ka maalea i kuonoono. "Take Wisdom and Make it Deep."
As destinations begin rolling out the welcome mat for tourists, Canadian Traveller will be observing with great interest and reporting on the tourism programming and policies of cities and regions which had been straining under the weight of overtourism, pre-pandemic.