Important Lessons We Can Learn From Hawai’i About Sustainable Tourism

Diamond Head Crater, O'ahu, Hawai'i

Hawai’i has faced major struggles with over-tourism in recent years, barring the huge decline in visitors it experienced during 2020 and 2021 from COVID. Recently, they created a DMAP (destination management action plan) for O’ahu to help curb over-tourism and restructure their tourism industry to prioritize sustainable development and regenerative travel. There is a lot we can learn from the struggles Hawai’i has encountered and their approach to turning it around. Here’s a few of the takeaways other destinations should take note of and how these changes might impact your trip, should you make plans to visit Hawai’i yourself in the coming years! 

Some basic definitions…

Before I dive into the DMAP and the implementation, let’s define a few terms. 

Over-tourism, defined basically, is when the number of tourists exceeds the capacity of the infrastructure, natural environment, or culture.   

Sustainable tourism – Tourism that is managed or executed in ways that protect the natural environment and local culture. Sustainable tourism is inherently able to be repeated or continued at its current levels or status quo without damage or alteration of the place being visited. 

Regenerative travel – This term aims to take sustainable tourism a step further, focusing on rebuilding, healing, or improving the places we visit through our travels. (This doesn’t mean volunteering – read up on voluntourism, which can often be more harmful than helpful.) 

What is the DMAP (Destination Management Action Plan) all about? 

Hawai’i’s DMAP is a 3-year plan put together by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority to “rebuild, redefine, and reset the direction of tourism”, centering around four main pillars: 

  • Natural Resources 
  • Hawaiian Culture 
  • Community  
  • Brand Marketing 

What I find most impressive and important about this plan is that it involves stakeholders at all levels. Tourism businesses, other businesses like retail & agriculture (less directly related to tourism but directly affected by tourism,) and the community itself including Hawaiian culture, education, and regional representatives.  

Sustainable tourism at its core is about protecting both the environment and the local culture, and you can’t do the latter without input from the locals themselves. 

A steering committee including representatives from all these sectors worked together to create their vision and plan, which they presented to residents thereafter. Then they revised their ideas with the feedback received and created their final action plan, which you can read in its entirety here

The DMAP ultimately landed on this vision for O’ahu:  

“By 2024, together with the community, the visitor industry will be rooted in mālama – to take care of this place and each other. O‘ahu will live in joy, abundance, and resilience because visitors and residents understand what is pono, share common goals, and have respect for each other and the environment.” 

– Hawai’i tourism authority, o’ahu destination management plan

What are the biggest issues identified through the creation of the DMAP? 

Tourism is a huge part of the Hawaiian economy, so the sharp decline in visitors during COVID was both a blessing and a curse.  

For many residents, it brought a period of peace, where traffic, crowds, and disrespectful visitors at sacred sites were brought to a screeching halt. Many natural attractions were able to heal a bit during this time.  

On the other hand, with a lot of businesses and jobs tied up in tourism, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and the economy took a huge hit.  

A resident poll identified the following issues as most pressing and harmful to the sustainability of Hawaiian culture and natural resources: “overcrowding, traffic, damage to the environment, and too great a dependence on tourism”. Here are a few of the top specific issues identified: 

  • 88% of O‘ahu residents said that it was important for the state to educate visitors and residents to mālama the islands and each other  
  • 74% – eliminate illegal vacation rentals on my island  
  • 71% – charge visitors access fees to state parks and trails  
  • 66% – encourage visitors to volunteer and give back during visits to Hawai‘i  
  • 64% – not allow building of additional hotel/condo/timeshare units on my island  
  • 62% – stop approval of additional legal vacation rentals on my island  
  • 57% – designate resident-only days at some state parks, beaches and trails 

How is the DMAP going to address these issues? 

The Hawaiian Tourism Authority who created the report points out that they do not have the authority to stop people from visiting Hawai’i or to decide who can and cannot visit the islands. Still, they have a lot of influence to create programming and influence federal legislatures and other stakeholders who do have that authority, or to otherwise impact tourism toward sustainability. 

The 6 Primary Objectives of the DMAP

After their research, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority came up with 6 primary objectives of the DMAP. 

OBJECTIVE 1 Create positive contributions to the quality of life for O‘ahu’s residents.  

OBJECTIVE 2 Support the maintenance, enhancement, and protection of O‘ahu’s natural resources. 

 OBJECTIVE 3 Ensure the authentic Hawaiian culture is perpetuated and accurately presented in experiences for residents and visitors, materials, and marketing efforts.  

OBJECTIVE 4 Maintain and improve visitor satisfaction of their experience on O‘ahu.  

OBJECTIVE 5 Strengthen the economic contribution of O‘ahu’s visitor industry.  

OBJECTIVE 6 Increase communication and understanding between the residents and visitor industry. 

I think these are incredible objectives that are worthy goals for all destinations, but especially those who are dealing with over-tourism. (Think Venice, Paris, Barcelona, Cancun.) 

Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens Oahu Hawaii – Photo by Darren Lawrence

How will the DMAP affect my travels to Hawai’i? 

There are a few awesome initiatives that are being considered or actively implemented, which you might notice on your trip. 

  • Reservation systems for top attractions – They are considering demand-based fees, which would help distribute tourists to a wider spread of attractions (less crowds for you!) 
  • A decrease in illegal short-term vacation rentals – this may mean less availability for accommodation, so you’ll want to plan and book your hotels in advance. While it may be a bit frustrating at times, remember that this is ultimately to protect the islands and make sure they stay as wonderful and worth visiting as they have been!  
  • Education efforts for tourists – You might see videos on your flight into Hawai’i with information about how to protect the environment, the cultural significance of certain sites to native Hawaiians, or how to respect the local etiquette. This is similar to Palau, and their Palau Pledge that each visitor must sign upon arrival.
  • Enactment of hiking permits – In the future, you may be required to purchase a permit to enter parks and hiking trails. The money goes toward conservation and management of these beautiful places to ensure they stay beautiful for the next visitors and for those who call the islands home, as well as for search and rescue missions. To that end, the permit process will likely include education on safety while hiking to minimize the need for such missions. 
  • Creation of a “regenerative tourism fee” – This is something that the Galapagos Islands has done for years. It’s still up for discussion how these fees would be collected, but like the hiking permits, these funds would help protect and maintain Hawai’i’s natural resources and “address unfunded conservation liabilities”.  

Why this is great news for travelers!

At first glance, these may seem like frustrating measures for us as tourists, but I truly believe that they will create a better experience for everyone involved. As residents feel more respected in their own homes, and secure in the knowledge their natural resources are being protected, sentiment towards tourists will only improve. And of course, making sure Hawai’i’s most beautiful places stay beautiful, and minimizing unsustainable crowds, will result in a better experience for everyone who travels there. 

I can’t wait to see these changes rolled out and I hope that this DMAP and the resulting actions will inspire other destinations to follow suit. 

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your take! Drop them in the comments below or send me an email at