Hawaii Visitors Spend 40% More, Enjoy Less

State data is now available for June travel, and it’s telling. Reading between the lines gives even more insight into what’s really going on here in Hawaii.

First, the numbers. Visitor arrivals from the larger West Coast are still down 4.5% from June 2021, although the secondary market in the eastern United States was up 3.9%. This slowdown is mainly the result of economic concerns. But we would say there is more to it.

Beat of Hawaii friend Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance (which your editors know from his life in Kauai), is quoted as saying, “I don’t see any shining stars over the next few months. The holiday season (December 23 to January 3) will always be strong. The rest of the year is milder than I expected.

The often out-of-touch and controversial Hawaii Tourism Authority said, “Our current visitors are spending significantly more on their trip to Hawaii, contrary to the misperception that we see a budget traveler spending less. Even with these higher-spending visitors, we must continue our efforts in destination management to balance economic benefits with environmental and community well-being.

What’s troubling in Hawaii?

Problem 1: The end of a great value but reasonably priced Hawaii vacation.

Visitors to the crucial West Coast spent $963.3 million in June, a whopping 39.4% increase from June 2019 before the pandemic. Those in the eastern United States spent $662.5 million, up 34.9% from June 2019.

A nearly 40% increase in the cost of Hawaii vacations is not sustainable. One of Hawaii’s raison d’être has always been to provide high-value, moderately priced, exotic yet domestic vacations. Is Hawaii really prepared for anything else if this paradigm is entirely ignored?

Problem 2: No marketing agency to help guide tourism to Hawaii.

HVCB (Hawaii Visitor And Convention Bureau) was evicted unceremoniously several months ago. The state’s Hawaii Tourism Authority has given the bulk of the marketing role to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. But that has led to the now contentious dispute over who will ultimately be responsible for Hawaii’s tourism marketing. Their dismissal is being protested by HVCB, which has extended a short-term contract for 90 days for marketing which ends in September. In the meantime, their marketing efforts have been largely abandoned as the dispute heads to court.

Problem 3: Hawaii Forward reservations have slipped.

It is already widely reported that the pace of term bookings is progressing for late summer and fall. The holidays are still strong, but after that we don’t see any big signs coming and 2023 looks to be a very competitive and problematic travel environment, with many visitors to Hawaii opting for long-established international destinations instead. And while slowing down tourism to some extent might be desirable, a free fall would not be. Don’t forget that tourism is by far the biggest revenue driver in Hawaii, producing hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenue.

Problem 4: Challenges related to overtourism leading to traffic jams, flight delays, airport congestion and lack of availability.

Maui is climbing to numbers not seen since Covid. There were nearly 300,000 visitors last month, the highest in 2½ years. But when it’s widely reported that Maui’s airport offers lines of up to 3 hours, that doesn’t bode well for returning visitors. Maui also intends to reduce tourism and has in mind finding ways to limit it to a fraction of current numbers.

But the challenges are greater than that and affect all the islands. Traffic has been worse than in years, while understaffing leads to unexpected availability at some locations on the islands. Airlines have their own problems, but arrive early and are patient on travel.

Problem 5: Anti-tourism sentiment persists, at least for now.

There is one thing about it. As long as there is too much tourism, this feeling will last. But probably, as soon as there is a big drop in tourism in Hawaii, which seems possible and even probable in the future, this feeling could change in no time.

The way Hawaii handles tourism is still convoluted and clearly a work in progress.

Hawaii is looking to transition to a more sustainable form of tourism. However, how this will evolve is not yet clear.

One of the issues is visitation or play rights. See Controversial Haena State Park controls the subject of Peter Greenberg’s show. New checkpoints and increased visitor fees are also in effect at Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head, among other places. These spread throughout the islands at the county and state level.

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