Hawaii’s national parks are attracting fewer visitors than last year. Mid-year tallies were substantially down from last year and showing signs of getting worse.
Tourism is one of the main engines driving Hawaii’s economy. Consequently, the decline in visitation this year (attributable to higher air travel costs and related factors), has lots of people fretting about the negative implications for jobs, tax revenues, and the state’s general economic health.
One of the things that Hawaiian officials watch very carefully is attendance at the state’s various national parks. The parks are distributed among different islands and vary greatly in accessibility and attractiveness. Like lodging, food, and gas sales, national park attendance figures can provide useful information about trends in the spatial distribution of tourist activity and spending within the state. Naturally, gateway communities are especially attentive to the attendance data.
Mid-year tallies at the national parks have been discouraging to many Hawaiians. As of July, year-to-date attendance at the state’s national parks was down 9.4%. Moreover, July’s total attendance was just 425,946 -- 15.1% less than last year. That’s nearly 76,000 fewer park visitors for that one month alone, and a strong indication that things may get worse before they get better.
The steep declines in attendance are not uniformly distributed. The state’s two big nature-based parks, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park, registered larger than average declines, and so did some of the smaller cultural/historical parks.
The Big Island accounts for about one-sixth of Hawaii tourist arrivals, and total visits were up in both 2005 and 2006. (Statistics for all the islands can be viewed at this site.) At Hawaii Volcanoes on the Big Island, year to date attendance was down nearly 14% as of July, and attendance for July was off more than 17%. Haleakala (on Maui, which gets one-fourth of Hawaii’s tourist arrivals) was down even more. In July of this year it tallied nearly 19% fewer visitors.
The biggest July decline, 26%, occurred at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, a small cultural/historical park on the Big Island’s Kona Coast. (You can learn more about this park, including the circumstances of its redesignation, at this site.)
Hawaii’s easy to get to national parks have been least affected. Most conspicuously, year to date attendance for the USS Arizona Memorial, one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist attractions, declined less than 9% in July and was down less than 6% for the year. The Arizona is extremely accessible because it is situated at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu (which accounts for nearly half of all Hawaii tourist arrivals) not far from the Honolulu tourism/convention hub.
Most state officials expect an eventual return to normal visitation levels for the state and its national parks. Hawaii tourism has always been cyclical, with arrivals and lengths of stay waxing and waning with factors such as broad scale economic trends (booms, recessions), air travel costs, air travel safety concerns (the post-9/11 air travel dropoff being a prime example), and Asian tourism trends (such as the shifting destination choices made by Japanese honeymooners and vacationers).
But could it be different this time? Might these attendance declines be a warning of worse yet to come?
Hawaiians have some good reasons to contemplate a potentially painful transition to a less vigorous visitor industry in which the main objective will be to increase visitor-days (get internationals and mainlanders to stay in Hawaii longer) and boost per capita tourist spending.
I don’t see credible travel experts forecasting any quick return to the cheap air travel that underpinned Hawaii’s boom in convention and tourism trade for many decades. (It was the transition to jet airliners in the 1960s that put Hawaii’s tourism and convention trade in fast forward mode.)
I do see speculation that terrorist threats or incidents involving passenger airlines or air terminals will sharply deter air travel to Hawaii sooner or later. I do see trends in Asian tourism (the rise of China, the rapid aging of Japan, the emergence of new tourist destinations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, etc.) that are steering this tremendously important visitor segment away from Hawaii. This is not to mention economic and demographic trends in America with happier implications for mainland tourism magnets Las Vegas and Disney World than for more distant, exotic locations like Hawaii. No, if I were a Hawaiian tourism official I would be preparing people for more bad news.
The implications for Hawaii’s national parks are obvious. International and mainland visitors drive attendance in these parks, and to get these people to visit the parks you first have to get them to visit Hawaii. Given the above-cited facts, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that further attendance declines may be in the offing, especially at Hawaii’s two big nature-based parks and the small cultural/historical parks on the Big Island.
Is there any reason to think that these parks can’t easily and quickly shift to lower levels of visitation? I don’t think so. Allowing that staff and budget adjustments might compel the curtailment of some services or programs, and perhaps the closing of some lesser-used facilities, essentially the same managerial policies and practices that have proven effective in the past should work just fine. And anyway, as some park advocates might quickly to point out, less “people pressure” and traffic in the parks is not necessarily a bad thing for park resources and visitor recreational satisfaction.