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A visitor takes a photo of a resting sea turtle behind cones Nov. 20, 2021, at Punalu'u Beach in Ka'u. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)
Most Big Island residents believe tourism is the most important pillar of the island’s economy, according to a 2021 survey.
Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, on Wednesday presented the results of a resident sentiment survey to the Hawaii County Council’s Government Operations, Relations, and Economic Development Committee.
The survey, he said, is complementary to similar surveys conducted by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, but provides a larger window into how Big Island residents specifically view the tourism industry.
According to those results, 70% of the survey’s 1,011 respondents believe tourism is the most important industry for the island’s economy, far outstripping other industries, such as agriculture.
Furthermore, 54% of respondents are part of a “visitor industry household,” meaning they currently work, have worked, or live with someone who works in the visitor industry, said David Pettinger, a market researcher with Honolulu-based Anthology Marketing Group, which conducted the survey.
About 70% of respondents also believe tourism represents an overall benefit to the island, with most citing the economic benefits and employment opportunities for residents.
However, most respondents also cited three factors as the greatest drawbacks of tourism: its negative impact on the environment, disrespectful behavior from tourists toward local people, culture and sites, and its impact on traffic and parking availability, which respondents considered their greatest concern.
Pettinger noted that respondents’ opinions were fairly predictable based on demographics.
People in lower income brackets were more likely to be part of a “visitor industry household,” and therefore more likely to take a positive view of the industry.
People who have grown up on the island are more likely to be tolerant of the visitor industry than transplants from out-of-state.
White and Japanese residents take a more positive view of tourism than Native Hawaiian residents, according to the survey.
Council members were bemused by the survey results. Kailua-Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said she feared that the generally positive reception toward the industry exhibited by the survey would be used as a blanket justification to continue on with the status quo.
However, Birch said the survey simply serves as a baseline against which to measure future attitude shifts.
As the visitors bureau enacts more facets of its Destination Management Action Plan — a two-year tourism road map released last year with a focus on “regenerative tourism” and sustainability — Birch said future surveys will, hopefully, record a positive shift in how residents perceive the industry.
Unfortunately, discussion on the survey was cut short Wednesday due to time constraints. Council members urged Birch to return before the council at a future meeting to discuss the DMAP more fully.
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