As pandemic kicks mass tourism, islands seek to mend ties with nature

By Nellie Peyton

Since coronavirus emptied Hawaii of tourists, seals have been lounging on beaches, fish are swimming closer to shore and the turquoise water of the U.S. islands’ famous Hanauma Bay is 55% clearer, one marine biologist said.

The pandemic has been devastating economically for Hawaii, whose $18-billion tourism industry employs more than 200,000 people, or about a third of the workforce. It is among the U.S. states with the highest unemployment rate since March.

But the absence of thousands of visitors a day has been a boon for fisheries, coral reefs and other aspects of the fragile island ecosystem that has become degraded by too much tourism and climate change.

As islands around the world grapple with similar challenges, some authorities see the pandemic as an opportunity for change. Before they open the floodgates to mass tourism again, some are questioning how much they want to go back to that model.

“The path we were on prior to COVID wasn’t sustainable,” said Celeste Connors, executive director of Hawaii Green Growth, one of several U.N. hubs set up around the world to advance sustainable development locally.

“The numbers of tourists that were coming were actually taking a toll on the community and environmental resources,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hawaii has not yet set a date for reopening to tourists, nor has it announced any plans to limit visitors. But officials said they do want to make a shift, and coronavirus may accelerate it.

“If we can move away from the mass, sort of industrial way tourism has been done and get into a more community and connected type of tourism, I think that’s where Hawaii can really shine,” said Kalani Kaanaana, director of cultural affairs and natural resources at the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The pandemic could help small-scale tourism offerings thrive because they will be less risky for disease transmission than large resorts and attractions, he added.


Many island destinations, including Hawaii, were already discussing how to make tourism more sustainable before the novel coronavirus swept around the world this year.

Popular spots from the Philippines to the Faroe Islands have briefly closed to visitors in recent years, to allow their ecosystems to recover. But none could have imagined the months-long closure coronavirus has imposed.

Scientists at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are doing surveys of water quality and wildlife, and are observing changes they have never seen before, said Kuulei Rodgers, principal investigator for the Coral Reef Ecology Lab.

The work could allow them to monitor for the first time just how big an impact tourism has on the local ecosystem.

“There’s hope that if we can establish a baseline from what we learn now, we have an argument for trying to preserve that,” said Kevin Chang, the head of KUA, an organization advocating for community-based natural resource management in Hawaii.

In the South Pacific, the Cook Islands were already planning a re-branding that would emphasize environmental stewardship.

Coronavirus offers a good chance to make that transition, said Metua Vaiimene, the government’s director of destination development.

“We have resolved to use this opportunity to reset and refresh our tourism industry,” Vaiimene told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But not all islands feel the same.

“I think what COVID-19 is doing is shaking things up enough that change is possible in places that want to do that,” said Kate Brown, executive director of the Global Island Partnership, an alliance spearheaded by island leaders.

“Some will just go back to business as usual,” Brown said. –Thomson Reuters Foundation

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