by Scott Laird
Kaua'i has always been something of a separate kingdom within the Hawaiian Islands.
While the State of Hawai'i actively markets and monitors performance in the visitor industry across all islands, individual counties (Kaua'i and Ni'ihau comprise Kaua'i County) plan and manage their own destination management objectives with the support of the statewide visitor industry association, the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Kaua'i County has recently released its Destination Management Action Plan (DMAP) through 2023, with an eye toward maintaining the natural beauty and rural aesthetic of the island while ensuring that the benefits contributed by the visitor industry ultimately outweigh the resources they consume.
HTA provides the broad framework for each county to design its own plan. Goals include attracting and educating responsible visitors, seeking regenerative solutions to overtourism and stewarding natural and cultural assets for the benefit of both Hawai'i residents and visitors.
Noteworthy here is discussion of "regenerative tourism" rather than "sustainable tourism". Sustainable tourism growth has focused on lessening the impact of tourism on a destination, while regenerative tourism is a way of viewing sustainable tourism that also takes into account net benefit of tourism; not only aiming to do less harm but to restore damage already inflicted by unsustainable practices.
For Kaua'i, that means addressing the adverse environmental impacts of the destination's significant tourism growth. Pain points include visitor dependence on individual car rentals for transportation, which snarls traffic for local residents, crowding and overuse of popular beaches and state parks and high housing costs with residential units (often illegally) converted for visitor use.
The goal of the Kaua'i DMAP is to rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism over the next three years, and the first objective of the plan is to create positive contributions to the quality of life for Kaua'i residents.
Hawai'i Tourism Authority not only markets the destination to visitors, but it also markets the visitor industry to Hawai'i residents and actively tracks resident sentiment on the visitor industry. In general, the goal is a visitor industry that has strong support and understanding of tourism's positive impacts on local residents, which creates more positive outcomes for both residents and visitors.
In 2019, Kaua'i visitors generally rated their visits to the island "excellent" but cited affordability and traffic as their main detractors. Kaua'i residents felt that visitors were responsible for the traffic and showed little respect for the island's land and culture, which ultimately led to a slight decrease in positive resident sentiment of the visitor industry.
In the first ten months of 2020, visitor traffic to Kaua'i dropped by nearly three quarters. By the third quarter of 2020, Kaua'i County's unemployment rate stood at 16.7 percent, compared to just 2.7 percent for the same period in 2019. Hotel occupancy was a healthy 72.6 percent through October 2019, but for the same period in 2020 reached just 36 percent.
Several of the plan's actions address and support activities and communication between local and state tourism stakeholders, but there are several proposed actions that will impact the visitor experience as the County works to address several of the resident and visitor pain points, including:
—Exploring User Fee models to offset maintenance costs at beaches and state parks
—Creating more informational signage at cultural sites, hiking spots and beaches to improve safety and visitor experience
—Educate tour operators and boating companies to deter ocean and reef pollution
—Advocate for better inspections of gear and equipment at the airport for visitors who intend to hike or camp while visiting
—Support awareness and education of appropriate behavior toward the island's endangered species
—Finding ways to include more Hawaiian cultural practices in the visitor experience, through local festivals, resort activities and cultural programs, and connecting Hawaiian cultural organizations to the visitor industry
—Continue stringent enforcement of illegal transient vacation rentals
—Commission a review of zoning and permitting to manage future visitor accommodations
—Pilot a reservation system to control visitor flow to certain high traffic attractions, such as the North Shore
Another point was the traffic situation, which the county hopes to address by encouraging alternate transportation options for visitors. Options might include shuttle services between the airport and popular resort areas and the uncoupling of parking costs from resort fees, which would help visitors better understand the overall expense of individual car rentals during their stay. Another possibility is implementing paid parking at popular parking-limited sites.
While the plan directs County and visitor industry resources and sets objectives for the next three years, it's also careful to call out that it's a working document that's subject to change as the visitor industry recovers and the needs of the stakeholders change.
The plan itself, however, is clear: to take hold of the opportunity provided by the COVID-19 "pause" to "build back better" for Kaua'i residents and visitors. An ancient chant describes the island, Maika'i Kauai, Hemolele i ka malie - Beautiful Kaua'i, peaceful in the calm. The plan works to steward Kaua'i's beauty, preserving the calm serenity that made it a sought-after destination.
The full DMAP can be reviewed here.
The author acknowledges the importance of Hawaiian Language diacritical marks such as the kahako (macron); however, some of these have been omitted for web browser compatibility.