It’s time to come together as part of the solution, not part of the problem, and change the world we serve for the better
By Ryan Hamilton
Earlier this week, as I was scanning my news feed for updates of relevance, I came across a headline that quickly captured my attention: What Native Hawaiians want you to know before your visit. As someone who spent much of his childhood in Hawai’i, any mention of the island conjures an inevitable wave of nostalgia and appreciation. In this particular context, though, that nostalgia was mixed with resonance, as the author called upon an issue I was aware of, but hadn’t found a way to articulate or champion.
As global tourism rebounds (to our collective relief and rejoice), popular destinations like Hawai’i are again seeing a steady influx of travelers eager to explore a foreign, tropical locale. With this in mind, the article’s author, writer, and Native Hawaiian Savannah Dagupion wrote about how Indigenous Hawaiians view the rebound in tourism and what they want tourists who visit the islands to know before arriving. The writing which followed was a beautiful account of Hawaii’s history and culture, the welcomed rejuvenation of the land during the early days of the pandemic, and the subsequent impact of the rebound of tourists to the islands. Most importantly, the author gives a critical voice to the many locals who have watched, with saddened hearts and spirits, as tourists took advantage of their land and hospitality without paying adequate respects to their culture and precious environment.
“Native Hawaiians and locals acknowledge that tourism is inevitable because people will always be drawn to the islands, which is why they have been speaking up about the importance of education and uplifting the lāhui (the Hawaiian nation),” the article reads. Julie Au, Education, Research, and Outreach Director of ʻĀina Momona, a non-profit focusing on land restoration, reclaiming and de-occupying Hawaiian lands, and sustainable futures for Hawai’i urges visitors to come educated. “Tourists need to know they are stepping into a place with a long history,” says Kapulani Antonio, a Hawaiian studies educator, quoted in the piece. “They need to take kuleana (responsibility) when they come.” Perhaps this is the sentiment that struck the loudest chord for me – now, more than ever, visitors must not treat Hawaiʻi as their playground and should consider how they can contribute to the land rather than just taking from it.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but feel inspired to share this message with the hospitality industry and speak to what it means for the future of travel as we move on from the pandemic. As someone who works to improve the guest experience via innovative hospitality technology, and someone who has lived abroad in incredible places like Hawai’i, I find myself in a unique position to shed light on both sides of the hospitality coin. On one side, our industry exists to entice and please guests. Still, on the other side, it’s time for travelers to recognize their responsibility to treat the destinations they frequent with the utmost care and respect.
A Call to Wanderlust Responsibly
Wanderlust is an incredible, wondrous feeling – if anything, part of the reason I entered this industry in the first place. I understand the pivotal role travel can play in shaping one’s character and view of the world. From a very young age, I felt an inherent pull to experience different cultures and environments. Many individuals I’ve met in the hospitality industry during my tenure share this passion and appreciation, boasting well-traveled passports and countless stories earmarked by beloved moments and memories. But we also can’t ignore the elephant in the room – tourism often comes at a cost that extends beyond the travelers’ bank accounts. If we don’t tread (or should I say, travel) carefully, over-tourism may permanently destroy some of the world’s most beloved destinations, cultures, and landmarks.
Simply stated, overtourism may be good for revenue, but it’s certainly not good for those cultures and environments impacted by a constant barrage of mostly well-intentioned, but perhaps unaware or uneducated, travelers. Reports indicate that destinations worldwide received 671 million international tourist arrivals between January and June 2019, almost 30 million more than in the same period of 2018. At the same time, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predicts that the number of tourists visiting other countries is set to grow by about 3.3% annually, to over 1.8 billion annual arrivals from 2010 to 2030. In a 2020 report, Statista noted that cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Venice are among the worst destinations for overtourism, with local authorities forced to deal with pressure from residents unhappy with the disruption from the influx of visitors. In Barcelona, protests have been held by locals frustrated with the increasing number of tourists, while Amsterdam has implemented an increase in tourist taxes, along with marketing campaigns for outer city destinations, to reduce the number of stopover travelers and prevent overcrowding in popular areas.
Similarly, Hawai’i natives have repeatedly attempted to bring attention to tourists’ consumption of the islands’ limited resources (90% of Hawaiʻi’s goods are imported). “People hop on a plane, come here and visit all these sites, drink all of our limited water, and fuel into this capitalist economy that’s building condos for them instead of housing for us and building resorts for them instead of agricultural land for us – and [they’re not seeing] the implications of that,” Julie Au shared in the aforementioned article.
In a 2021 article posted to thetravel.com, the author writes, “It’s important to remember that not every place began as a big city or a place that’s constantly filled with people. Not every destination encompasses the potential for capacity like New York City or can support millions of tourists like Hong Kong. Some of the most well-known places that have fallen victim to over-tourism began as small towns, villages, farmlands, or wilderness.”
In some cases, an influx of tourism may help to save these small towns or villages from the threat of economic extinction. However, the revenue potential boasted by ‘hot-spot’ travel status is a double-edged sword. With the promise of international leisure spend comes the subsequent risk of locals being displaced from their homes, harm to endangered species and environments, the disregard or disruption to local culture and ways of life, and damage to the structural integrity of certain cities, villages, and more.
The awareness of this budding issue has informed one of the major trends now taking the hospitality world by storm: eco-tourism and sustainable travel. Since the pandemic, 61% of travelers report wanting to choose more sustainable travel options. Moreover, the sustainable travel market in the business travel and tourism sector is expected to grow by $235.21 billion during 2021-2025. Booking.com reports that 69% of people want to reduce their carbon footprint when traveling, and a global survey in 2020 showed that Gen Z (56%) and millennial (51%) travelers are the most concerned with sustainable travel.
A Culturally-Conscious Approach
Perhaps more importantly, though, is this statistic: 80% of travelers now say they want to learn more about local culture when on holiday. When we consider how we can travel in a more sustainable and eco-friendly manner, it’s essential to look beyond the list of basic do’s and don’t to focus on the core issue: respecting (and hopefully learning from) different cultures.
If you ask me, travel isn’t simply an experience – it’s an opportunity for meaningful collaboration, and it’s time for foreign travelers to hold up their end of the bargain. In my mind, this goes beyond sustainable practices and considerations and calls upon each traveler to educate themselves about the cultures they wish to visit prior to their trip. While sustainable initiatives have been created to reduce or mitigate environmental harm, new concepts like regenerative travel look to inspire international travelers to leave a place better than they found it. In the wake of the pandemic, we realize a unique opportunity to redefine global travel culture and benefit from enhanced traveler commitment to sustainability, support the recovery efforts of popular destinations, and support/restore local communities.
Just as hoteliers and hospitality brands agonize over how they can improve the guest experience, it’s time for travelers to agonize over how they can enhance the destination experience by being more responsible, culturally aware, and sustainably-committed travelers. As the article which inspired me to write this so eloquently articulated, locals in popular travel destinations often have the sense that foreigners are bad and there to “take” from (or potentially harm) local culture and land. So, as both travelers and travel professionals, we have to ask ourselves: How can we demonstrate a commitment to learning about (rather than taking from) distant cultures and land? How can we be both a visitor and a true friend to the destinations and cultures we have the incredible privilege of visiting?