Hawaii’s National Parks Are Attracting Fewer Visitors

The Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and cultural/historical parks have recorded big drops in attendance this year. NPS photo.

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.

For Hawaii tourism statistics, see this site. The results of an interesting study of Hawaiian island tourist perceptions and preferences can be viewed at this site.

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.

On the island of Molokai, visitation at both Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park and Kalaupapa National Historical Park has been about the same as last year (meaning not very high).

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.

Comments

Hawaii vacation costs haven't gotten completely out of hand. Far from it. To help stem the decline in tourism, the first in seven years, the Hawaiian hospitality industry is offering dramatically cheaper lodging. Mainlanders planning a fall or winter trip to Hawaii can now score some of the best in-season room rates and travel package deals that have been seen in the islands for quite a while. This can go a long way toward offsetting the higher cost of air travel. For example, a couple taking a week-long vacation in Hawaii this month will pay about $460 more for airfare than last year, but can shop around and find hotels with weekly rates priced $300 or $400 less than last year.

The security-driven 'airport experience' is an increasing deterrent to air-travel. Many complain about it. The chronic economic crisis for the airline industry, wage-reductions for pilots, and recurring stories of lax maintainance, all could understandably serve to reduce the willingness of a sensible person to entrust themselves to a 600 mph vehicle of dubious reliability.

There are, as well, social problems in Hawaii which may make vacationing there less pleasant. Increasingly strong anti-development sentiments are becoming conspicuous in the Island scene. Some of this might spill over as hostility toward visitors. As well, there appears to be a trend in the U.S. to express greater sympathy for such social conflicts.

Using environmental classification schemes, great swaths of the entire Hawaiian archipelago have been declared 'no-go zones'. It is now against the law to go ashore on the great majority of Hawaiian islands, and this causes resentment and impacts a potentially lucrative touring enterprise. President Bush, otherwise no big fan of environmental issues, has been especially keen to re-classify the archipelago.

I have for some years now begun to wonder about the long term future of the State of Hawaii. Effects on tourism & Park-visitation seem like components of a larger social drama there.

Interesting observations about Native Hawaiians, Ted. But while it's true that many Native Hawaiians dislike "haoles" (whites) and have profoundly anti-development views, that's not been a significant problem in their direct relations with tourists. Take the Big Island, for example. Native Hawaiians who don't like haoles don't interact all that much with Big Island tourists. The overwhelming majority of hotels (including some of the finest in the world) are situated over on the west side (the Kona Coast), whereas the densest clusters of Native Hawaiian are on the east side, where there's comparatively cheap land south of Hilo. (The east side of the Big Island is the rainy side; Hilo is America's rainiest city. While tourists don't like rain, Native Hawaiians seem not to mind it.) In 1999, Sandy and I stayed for a few days at a resort on the coast south of Hilo. This was not far from Pahoa, which is certainly one of the most interesting little towns I've ever seen. Not once during our entire stay did we have an interaction with a Native Hawaiian that was anything but cordial. Let me hasten to add that I have never been damn fool enough to take a rental car up one of those long private drives that wind through the trees off the main road. Haoles are not now, nor have they ever been, welcome in those private places.