While the pandemic pummeled Hawaii in its early stages, the Aloha State’s tourism industry is back, and by some metrics, bigger than ever. The number of tourists from the U.S. mainland is higher than it was before the pandemic — and average spending per trip is also higher.
More demand means higher prices — and the increase in demand is just getting started. Travelers from Asia, who previously comprised a significant portion of Hawaii tourists, have not returned to Hawaii in pre-pandemic numbers, due in large part to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
But with recent border reopenings in Asia, coupled with some big changes coming to the Hawaii tourism scene (including Disney cruises and a clampdown on tourist accessibility), the future for Hawaii travelers will likely be competitive — and expensive. Still, there are ways to visit that allow you to avoid crowds, minimize over-tourism and save money.
Tourism in Hawaii is at record highs by some metrics
More than 700,000 people visited Hawaii in September 2022, representing a 95.5% recovery from the same month in 2019. But while overall tourism numbers haven’t exceeded pre-pandemic levels, many other metrics have been blown out of the water, according to data from the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.
Here are some of the most significant changes in Hawaii tourism between September 2019 and September 2022:
Overall tourism spending in Hawaii is up 18.5%.
The average trip length is up 5.9%.
The number of tourists visiting from the rest of the U.S. is up 29%.
Increased spending might be partly due to inflation. The average cost of airfare increased about 8% nationwide between September 2019 and September 2022, while hotel prices increased 5%, according to a NerdWallet analysis of Consumer Price Index data. But in that period, the nationwide increase in inflation — up 16% — is less than the 18.5% spending increase specific to Hawaii.
Stays in Hawaii are longer than they were pre-pandemic — possibly because of an increase in workcations. The average stay in September 2022 spanned 8.9 days, up 5.9% from the average 8.4-day stay in September 2019.
People are also spending more on daily activities like hotels, tours and food than they did pre-pandemic. Average spending per person, per day in September 2022 was $236, up 17.1% from the same month in 2019.
Of all the islands, Oahu has seen the sharpest increase in average daily visitor spending since pre-pandemic times, up 25%. Oahu has also seen some significant investment in tourist-minded improvements — many of which put a fresh emphasis on Hawaii’s culture and history.
For example, the Ford Island Control Tower at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum opened this summer after a restoration project that took over a decade. The Polynesian Cultural Center’s Ali’i Luau had its official relaunch in August 2022. (It initially launched not long before pandemic shutdowns in fall 2019.) Seth Casey, a marketing manager at the Polynesian Cultural Center, says it’s the only luau in Hawaii that features a historically accurate Hawaiian cultural presentation.
And tourists are responding well to such additions. More than two-thirds of tourists from the U.S. and Canada participated in activities centered around history or culture in the first quarter of 2022, according to DBEDT.
Supply might not grow — which could put more pressure on prices
For all the demand, there might not be much of a supply increase. The majority of Hawaii residents say they don’t want more lodging to be built.
While 77% of residents want to clamp down on illegal vacation rentals, 64% don’t want any new vacation rentals, period. That’s according to DBEDT’s Spring 2022 Resident Sentiment Survey, which interviewed nearly 2,000 Hawaii residents between May and July 2022. And it’s not just vacation rentals; 66% said they didn’t want to allow the building of any additional hotels, condos or timeshares.
There are also caps on activities for Hawaii travelers. For example, a pilot project from Park Maui this winter will restrict parking access at Maui’s Kamaole Beach parks on weekends and holidays before 10 a.m., allowing only Maui County residents to park. Non-residents can park there after 10 a.m. — for a fee. (Meanwhile, resident parking is free.)
Such changes stem in part from rising anti-tourism sentiment. In 2009, 78% of residents said they at least somewhat agree that tourism brings more benefits than problems. But that figure has been steadily decreasing. In 2022, it’s just 54%.
But some residents are more receptive to tourism than others. On Oahu — which saw the largest increase in average visitor spending of all the islands versus pre-pandemic — pro-tourism sentiment has recently increased, reversing a downward trend that began before the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents on Oahu and the Big Island were more likely than those on Maui or Kauai to say that tourism should be actively encouraged, according to DBEDT data.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of residents on Maui and Kauai have stated that their island “is run for tourists at the expense of local people,” and that the “economy is too dependent on tourism.” Residents of those islands are more likely to want to stop building hotels or approving vacation rentals. They’re also more likely to call for resident-only days at parks and beaches.
Still, Hawaii tourism will likely continue to explode
While the number of tourists in Hawaii is at about 96% of its pre-pandemic levels, signs point to 2023 far exceeding that.
For starters, the number of tourists from the rest of the U.S. has already massively increased, up 29% in September 2022 versus September 2021, according to DBEDT data. Meanwhile, tourism from other countries is still down — most notably from Japan.
In 2019, more than 1.5 million tourists came from Japan, representing about 15% of all tourists to the state. For now though, Japanese tourism is still down 83%.
That figure could shift, as Japan recently reopened its borders to independent foreign travelers following nearly three years of heavy pandemic restrictions. Travelers can now enter Japan without applying for a visa in advance — and likewise, it’ll be far easier for people from Japan to get to Hawaii. Direct flights between the two destinations only resumed in August 2022 after a pandemic hiatus, making convenient travel to Hawaii from Japan possible again.
Then there are cruises. Hawaii paused cruise ship arrivals during the first two years of the pandemic. Then, in the first nine months of 2022, 26 out-of-state cruise ships arrived, bringing 40,658 tourists, according to DBEDT. That’s far fewer than the 44 cruise ships carrying 95,149 tourists that arrived during the same period in 2019, but cruises are coming back.
Just this year, Disney Cruise Line announced its first-ever cruises through the South Pacific, which will take visitors between Honolulu and Sydney, with stops that include American Samoa and Fiji.
Should tourists go to Hawaii? Yes, but mindfully
There are plenty of ways to cut down on contributions to Hawaii tourism problems and save money. Here’s how to minimize both costs and overtourism when traveling to the islands.
Patronize historically accurate visitor experiences: While residents are mixed on tourism’s benefits, most agree that educating visitors about the islands’ cultural and natural resources is crucial. Tourist activities like the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Ali’i Luau are trying to tackle that.
When the show went into development in 2019, Casey says the creators went to painstaking efforts to make sure they got feedback from cultural experts to ensure it was accurate.
The luau is a tribute to Hawaii’s last ruling monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. Performers onstage tell her story in her own words and play original compositions she wrote.
Ditch rental cars for mass transit: Don’t be intimidated by the idea of exploring Hawaii without a rental car. It can be done. Oahu is generally the easiest Hawaiian island to navigate without a car, given its public transportation system, TheBus, and the privately owned Waikiki Trolley that stops at most major tourist attractions. On other islands, try taking small group tours rather than renting a car and fighting traffic on your own. For experiences like Maui’s famous winding Road to Hana, paying someone else to drive while you enjoy the scenery might be ideal anyway.
Respect natural resources: While you can spend time in nature for little to no cost, it’s important to be mindful of the environment. Don’t carve your name in trees or leave trash behind, and stay on trails whenever possible.
Seek out hotels that don’t charge resort fees: Resort fees are one of the most brutal — and increasingly common — aspects of travel found in popular destinations like Hawaii. These semi-hidden fees purport to cover the costs of expenses such as the fitness center or pool, but they’re non-negotiable. Even if you don’t use the amenities, the fees are still charged.
But some hotels have opted out of charging them. Courtyard Oahu North Shore, for example, offers standard amenities like a swimming pool and waterfall, plus cultural activities like ukulele and hula classes with no additional fee.
“We look at it from a guest perspective,” says Dave Betham, the property’s general manager. “We like the idea that there are no surprises.”
Making Hawaii tourism better for residents and locals
Hawaii tourism is growing — and it looks set to reach new highs beyond even pre-pandemic times.
For tourists, Hawaii can be a prime vacation destination. It can be an escape from colder climates and an opportunity to explore a different culture through new foods, activities and historical sites.
Many of those within Hawaii’s tourism industry say they want to offer activities that still respect the land. That includes folks like Betham, mentioned above, as well as Aaron Campbell, who owns Climbworks Keana Farms, a zipline company on Oahu’s North Shore.
“We want visitors to come, but we want them to come responsibly,” Campbell says.
During the 10-minute ride to the mountain top, tourists are taught about Hawaii’s history, culture and farming. Educational exhibits are sprinkled along the zipline tour itself.
“As we now look at this push for tourism that we’ve gone through, we’re reexamining the value of tourism,” Betham says. “How do we make that experience better for the guests, better for us, better for the Hawaiian people?”