During the annual conference of the Hawaii Economic Association earlier this month, the first day of panels posed a big question for tourism: “Can We Make Both Residents & Visitors Happy?”

Weighing in were business and community leaders like Denise Yamaguchi, founder of the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival; John DeFries, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s president and chief executive; and State Rep. Richard Onishi, chairman of the Hawaii House Committee on Labor and Tourism.

Also on hand was Pauline Sheldon, a professor emerita at the University of Hawaii’s Travel Industry Management School. Sheldon’s presentation echoed one she had given just the night before at the Hawaii Book & Music Festival, on a panel titled “Transforming Hawaii Tourism.”

Sheldon’s theme: a need to go beyond merely sustainable tourism to “regenerative tourism,” something that she said can produce benefits to the community that far outweigh tourism’s negative side effects.

“Our tourism is a mess right now,” Sheldon said in an interview. “Everybody knows it.”

And how to right the mess?

“We must pivot towards regenerative tourism,” the Hawaii Tourism Authority says in a recent destination management plan for Oahu. “Regenerative tourism is how tourism can make destinations better for both current and future generations.”

The idea of regenerative tourism isn’t new, but the fact that it was the topic of discussion at two major events within 24 hours shows it’s taking hold in Hawaii. Even corporate types are buying in. Sherry Menor-McNamara, the president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, was among those on the steering committee that shaped HTA’s destination management plan calling for regenerative tourism.

“How can we ensure that tourism benefits our communities and respects the communities and makes them better?” she said in an interview, when asked about regenerative tourism. “As we move forward, what does that look like?”

Most Residents Think Hawaii Is Run For Tourists At Residents’ Expense

That question is critical for Hawaii. Despite tourism’s importance to the economy – about 1 in 6 jobs are tourism-related – the public’s view of tourism has never been worse. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2019, Hawaii hosted more than 10 million tourists, averaging about 250,000 visitors a day in a state with a resident population of just 1.4 million.

Hordes of visitors crowding trails and beaches for Instagram selfies and invading residential neighborhoods to stay in unlicensed vacation rentals caused such a backlash that, even as Hawaii’s economy was wrecked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the loss of tourism jobs, people still weren’t keen on inviting tourists back. By late 2020, 57% of residents who responded to a Hawaii Tourism Authority survey completely or strongly agreed that Hawaii was too dependent on tourism, up from 37% in 2019.

Some 67% completely or strongly agreed that their “island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

Against this backdrop, tourism experts are looking at new models. Frank Haas, a former director of marketing for HTA who now runs the consulting firm Marketing Management Inc., prefers what he calls “smart tourism” to regenerative tourism, although he says there’s some overlap between the concepts. In the end the goal is about making things better beyond creating jobs.

“If it’s done right, tourism can actually help preserve and expand the culture, because it creates a space for the culture to exist,” Haas said.

So what exactly is regenerative tourism and how does it create space for culture and residents to thrive? When asked, Sheldon points to her textbook definition, explaining that it “replenishes, revitalizes and contributes to the long-term flourishing of destination communities and environments.”

“It is based in the principles of regenerative agriculture and regenerative economics such as: systemic, long-term thinking; respect for human values and nature’s laws; and the ability for self-renewal in ever-changing conditions,” she adds.

This might seem academic, but there are examples of regenerative tourism throughout the islands, she says. Tourists shopping at farmers’ markets or going on farm tours are common examples. Such activity supports local food production and diversified agriculture and the environmental benefits that go with that.

But other regenerative activities are sprouting up.

A case in point is Jalene Kanani Bell. A Native Hawaiian designer, Bell once designed interiors for hotels and resorts. Her work led her to discover a lack of textile designs depicting Hawaiian plants and motifs; common “tropical” designs tended to show things like flamingoes.

This inspired her to found Noho Home, a Hawaiian textile and product design company that incorporates Hawaiian flora and fauna into patterns. As part of her business, Bell occasionally takes customers to see native plants, then back to her workshop to show how she incorporates the plants into linen designs. People can buy products to take home or have shipped.

Although such visits are one-off affairs, Bell envisions formalizing them, perhaps partnering with Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a nursery that specializes in Native Hawaiian plants.

“We’re looking at regenerative tourism as an opportunity to merge culture, enterprise, and health and well-being, which drives sustainability,” she said.

It is not simply a matter of selling products, Bell said, but also telling stories, giving visitors an experience not just of places and physical spaces but of people as well. That, she said, can create real connections that bring value to objects and create respect for Hawaii and the community.

“They have all that mo’olelo around it,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for story. “And they’ll continue to share.”

“What’s she’s suggesting is brilliant, and it’s exactly what we want,” Sheldon says. “These micro enterprises are the key.”

And, Sheldon says, potentially lucrative.

“I would bet people would pay big bucks for that,” she said.

At the same time, Sheldon says, the idea isn’t to start putting “For Sale” signs on everything.

“It’s not about commodifying” Hawaiian culture, Sheldon said. “It’s interpreting and telling stories and bringing meaning, so that they learn something and go home with an enriched experience.”

Steering Visitors From Crowded Sites

One challenge, Sheldon says, is to change the way people think about tourism.

For instance, she says, it’s useful to think of tourism not as an industry of businesses, like big resorts, airlines and tour bus companies. Instead, she says tourism is a system of inter-related parts, including broader society, cultural institutions like hula halau and Hawaii canoe clubs as well as beaches, coral reefs and forests.

Residents are also key. Sheldon points to a “human library” in Amsterdam, where visitors can “check out” people to tell their stories.

“A refugee, an ex-hooligan, an ex-criminal, a transgender, a homeless person and a teen mother are there to tell you their story,” the library’s website says. “In an open conversation, where everything can be asked.”

Sheldon acknowledges the idea “sounds a bit creepy,” but while brainstorming, wonders if something like that could work in Hawaii, given its rich tradition of talking story.

Regardless, she says, connecting visitors with small, local artists, makers, entrepreneurs and regular people is essential to regenerative tourism.

There’s another benefit to all of this, Haas notes. Steering people to farm tours or Native Hawaiian plant stores or any number of places that most tourists have no idea exist in Hawaii takes them away from overcrowded beaches and trails.

He points to quilt aficionados and bird watchers as untapped micro-market segments that could help support cultural and natural resources without adding to crowds at the standard tourist sites. Thus, as Haas describes it, regenerative tourism is part of broader destination management.

All of that said, it’s far from clear that this sort of activity can offset the negative side effects of having millions of visitors come to the islands, no matter how much local dragon fruit and kalo tourists buy. Haas said it’s vital to quantify these negative side effects – known as negative externalities in economics parlance – in order to understand what must be done to offset them.

While some costs are accounted and even paid for by tourists, like impacts on airports, others are often not, like greenhouse gas emissions related to a tourist’s visit or costs to natural and cultural resources.

The last time anyone tried to quantify this, Haas said, was in 2006. He studied some of these impacts and found tourists generally use more things like water and electricity than residents simply because the tourists often stay at large resorts that use a lot of water for things like swimming pools, grounds and golf course and electricity to cool rooms and common areas.

“It really is important to keep score fully in what the impacts of tourism are,” Haas said. “If you’re not keeping score, the assumption is there’s no cost.”

In the meantime, Sheldon said, it’s important for Hawaii to cultivate a regenerative tourism ecosystem, not just because it’s good for the islands but also because tourists increasingly want regenerative experiences, even if they don’t always know what to call them.

“We always were a world premier destination,” she said. “And if we can pull this off we can show the world that we really are premiere.”