As Hawai‘i continues its shift to regenerative tourism, the Hanalei River Heritage Foundation and other organizations recognize that better bridges need to be built to connect tourism and community groups.
“I think the trick is going to be we still have to build the system where the people of the place are able to truly be the hosts,” Sheehan says.
Pa-Smith adds that he’s been proactive in talking with tourism organizations about how his nonprofit can work with them, and cited efforts by other groups to do the same, on a larger scale.
Pa-Smith leads the way into Uhau‘iole Valley, where tourists are encouraged to work in lo‘i. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino
The Hanalei River Heritage Foundation was one of 29 community groups that participated in the 2021 Kaiāulu Ho‘okipa Impact Studio Cohort put on by the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and travel2change, a Hawai‘i nonprofit that connects visitors to volunteer experiences.
Cohort members learned about good business practices and how to accurately present Hawaiian culture while developing their regenerative experiences. They also received mentorship for three months after six-week training.
“We believe in the potential of our community leaders who are already doing the work to be able to come up with the solutions, and just because they’re not always super mainstream doesn’t disqualify them from having the answers,” says Mondy Jamshidi-Kent, who was travel2change’s executive director until March 2023. She is now principal of Naupaka Pacific, a consultancy that helps nonprofits and social enterprises offer regenerative tourism experiences.
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement already helps businesses and nonprofits build capacity and access financial support through its Pop-Up Mākeke online marketplace, financial counseling, loans and business classes. Now, using its existing tools, it’s pivoting to better help local organizations get involved in tourism, Lewis says.
Sustained By Tourism
Locals’ views of tourism are starting to improve, according to HTA’s latest resident sentiment survey from fall 2022.
About 44% of the 1,950 residents surveyed said that tourism was being better managed on their islands, up 5 percentage points from fall 2021. And 57% of respondents agreed that tourism’s benefits outweighed its problems, up 8 percentage points from a record low the prior year.
However, visitor numbers are almost back to their pre-pandemic peak, with arrivals each month between January and June this year at least 93% of what they were during the same month in 2019.
“I think we universally agree that 10 million visitors a year is too many, but we also sort of have to agree our economy is dependent on the tax base that’s generated from tourism dollars,” says Tyler Iokepa Gomes, chief administrator of Kilohana, CNHA’s tourism arm.
In 2022, the industry generated $2.24 billion in state tax revenue and supported 197,000 jobs, according to HTA. And in June 2023 alone, nearly 890,000 visitors spent $2 billion – 22.7% more than four years ago.
The key is figuring out how to make sure tourism is contributing more than it’s extracting, Gomes says. Regenerative tourism by itself won’t solve Hawai‘i’s high cost of living issues, but it can help, he says, by creating job diversity and wage and hiring equity for Native Hawaiians, among other things.
“I think if you were to ask me what does the future look like for tourism, it’s one in which our community is being sustained by tourism – where our farmers don’t need to struggle to farm, where our businesses aren’t clinging on to life,” Lewis says. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry and there’s no reason why it can’t regenerate our community and provide for them and their families, their future.”
Back at Hā‘ena State Park, Maka, the Hanalei Initiative employee, is somber. He says Kaua‘i has been flooded with visitors since pandemic-closures lifted. And because the park now requires advanced reservations that quickly sell out, tourists are flocking instead to nearby and sometimes more dangerous beaches.
“In order to save this place, the community has to really come together, the county has to come together or even the state, and slow these people down, really slow them down because there’s just too much people,” he says. “We have to start slowing them down now because we have to save (these places) for when we’re gone.”