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While the state of Hawaiʻi mulls over the future of tourism in the islands, a new study finds cultural experiences, sustainable opportunities and locally sourced foods are important to visitors from the U.S. mainland, and those travelers are willing to pay more for those features. This could lead to the state reexamining its current tourism offerings and establishing a new approach to the U.S. domestic tourism market. These findings from University of Hawaiʻi researchers are published in the Journal of Risk and Financial Management.

Domestic tourism market

U.S. domestic visitors to ​​Hawaiʻi accounted for more than 99% of all visitors by air in July 2021, according to the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This is due in large part to the safe travels testing program and quarantine restrictions international visitors face upon returning to their home country. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourists from the U.S. were the largest source for visitors to the islands. New public impact research from UH Mānoa and UH West Oʻahu looked into the desired experiences of those visitors.

An online survey of 28 questions was administered randomly to residents of the continental U.S. who had traveled on an airplane for vacation at least once in the last year. The researchers collected 455 survey responses, of which 64% were first time visitors to Hawaiʻi, while 36% had previously visited the islands.

Visitors ‘willing to pay more’

Among the major findings, when asked if respondents were willing to pay more to experience and support sustainable tourism experiences in Hawaiʻi, more than 70% answered “yes,” and approximately one third stated they would pay more than 10%. Also, more than 35% of respondents were willing to pay more than 10% extra to experience culturally respectful tourism experiences in Hawaiʻi, and nearly 20% were willing to pay an additional 16%.

Some of these cultural experiences, study co-author and UH Mānoa School of Travel Industry Management Professor Jerry Agrusa says, may include working in a taro patch, helping to rebuild ancient Hawaiian fishponds, cleaning up invasive species on a hiking trail and/or doing a beach cleanup.

“One of the things that families want is that they want something educational when on vacation—something that the children bring back and this includes learning about the local culture,” Agrusa said.

In addition, UH researchers discovered that more than 75% of respondents reported that they are willing to pay additional fees for “authentic Hawaiian cultural experiences,” which Agrusa says aligns with the ​​Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority’s newly launched Mālama ​​Hawaiʻi campaign and Hawaiian Airlines’ new “travel pono” in-flight video, placing a stronger emphasis on connecting with the culture, giving back and preserving it for the future.

Paying more for locally sourced food

A section of the survey was also dedicated to the locally sourced food/farming industry. Nearly 80% of respondents stated that they were willing to pay more to support locally grown food. More than 20% indicated that they would be willing to increase their food bill by 16% or more, while more than 37% of survey participants indicated that they would be willing to increase their bill by 11% or more.

Agrusa hopes this will encourage the farming industry to grow and partner with the hotel industry to sell their products to visitors, instead of importing approximately 95% of the state’s food from around the world.

The research team comprises Agrusa, UH West Oʻahu Assistant Professor Holly Itoga, UH Mānoa spring 2021 master of science in travel industry management graduate Gabriella Andrade, Østfold University College Associate Professor Cathrine Linnes and UNLV Professor Joseph Lema.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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