From new restrictions on vacation rentals to reservation-only parking at popular attractions, Hawaii has joined the globe’s growing list of destinations trying to address overtourism through regulation. Now tourism leaders are hoping that educating visitors about being pono, the Native Hawaiian concept of righteousness, can also ease the strain on the islands’ aloha spirit.
Just under 10 million people visited the islands in 2018 — the sixth year in a row of record-breaking numbers, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority research. Yet it’s not only the numbers of travelers that can cause problems, officials say; it’s the way they travel, especially in an age where social media means no secret spot is secret for long.
“While previously (visitors) were very happy staying on the resorts, with maybe some sightseeing, for the new visitors, it’s just mandatory to see what life would be like from a local perspective — going out on the trails, getting into the neighborhoods and neighborhood restaurants,” said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. “This isn’t just in Hawaii — it’s in Barcelona, Venice, San Francisco.”
Vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO have contributed to Hawaii’s surge in visitors, according to Talwar, but also to discontent over the perceived reduction in neighborhood housing. Earlier this year, local governments on Oahu and Hawaii Island finalized legislation severely restricting short-term rentals outside of resort areas.
“More and more we see visitors getting themselves in trouble or physical injury,” noted Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “There are certain places you shouldn’t go, and there are certain things you shouldn’t be doing, and where you shouldn’t be risking a selfie shot.”
In response, his agency has developed the online Pono Pledge, asking visitors to promise “to be pono (righteous) on the island of Hawaii.” The multi-part pledge includes agreeing to “not defy death for breathtaking photos, trespass or venture beyond safety,” to leave lava rocks and sand “as originally found” and to “embrace the island’s aloha spirit, as it embraces me.”
The 2018 volcanic eruption overshadowed the rollout of the pledge last summer, Birch said, but it also made it even more timely. Visitors looking for alternatives to the then-closed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park suddenly swelled the remote Waipio and Pololu valleys, he noted. Now more tourism-related companies on the island are starting to share the Pono Pledge, according to Birch.
The bureau is also participating in the recently announced, statewide Kuleana (“Responsibility”) Campaign, a series of brief educational videos for visitors that appear in their smartphones’ social media feeds once they arrive. In the 15- to 60-second videos, island luminaries such as cultural practitioner Kainoa Horcajo and meteorologist Malika Dudley share tips on everything from trail safety to avoiding unlicensed lodging.
The video campaign got a head start on Maui in late 2018, according to Leanne Pletcher, director of public relations and marketing for the Maui Visitors Bureau.
“We had 2.4 million impressions between December and June, so it was a huge success story,” she said. That figure equals almost 80% of Maui’s total number of visitors in 2018.
The Maui agency also recently added the community-developed Road to Hana Code of Conduct to its road maps to encourage good behavior along East Maui’s winding coastal highway, which Pletcher called a “bucket list item” for visitors.
“We’re setting boundaries, saying, ‘Take your time on this journey while also being respectful of the local community that needs to get to work,’” Pletcher explained. “Maybe it will make the road to Hana better for everyone.”
On Kauai, where overtourism issues led to the debut in June of a new reservation-only entry system and shuttle for Haena State Park, Holo Holo Charters promotes its own Pono Pledge (www.holoholopono.com). It asks passengers on its popular sailing excursions to respect the land, sea and “traditions of the Hawaiian people.” Examples include wearing reef-safe sunscreen, slowing down and “changing (their) watch to ‘Hawaiian time,’” e.g. being flexible when things don’t go as planned.
“It’s planting a seed for something bigger — they’ll commit to being a responsible traveler wherever they go, not just here,” said Cindy Kauanui, Holo Holo’s sales manager.
On the island of Hawaii, Fair Wind Cruises asks its passengers to sign a “snorkeling pledge” that includes not touching coral and using only reef-safe sunscreen (provided free of charge).
“It’s an incredible opportunity to get in front of a lot of visitors who are looking to enjoy the ocean,” said Penn Henderson, Fair Wind’s director of sales and marketing. “These people are then taking that knowledge everywhere else they go.”