Why Hawaii’s Repeat Visitors Aren’t Returning – Does Anyone Care?

In comment after comment, we’ve heard an outspoken and repeated voice. Here’s just one example today to set the tone. “Hawaii is extremely expensive. The native population is unfriendly and unwelcoming. Despite that we have been visiting the beautiful islands continually for 20 plus years. If these new tourist ideas and fees are implemented we will have made our last trip. Period.”

Yesterday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) booted out the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau (HVCB) with its 120 plus year history in the state, and gave the marketing contract to an organization apparently without tourism experience but rooted in Native Hawaiian culture. The announcement was stunning. Will the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement be able to help the state navigate some of the most important issues it faces, given their singular focus on Native Hawaiian issues?

Hawaii has had a very high return rate of visitors. Why that’s about to change.

The reasons are multifold.

1. Visitors are increasingly able to travel more freely now that Covid is more in the rear view mirror. International travel has been largely off-limits but not so anymore. Most of those who opted for Hawaii regularly  in the past will choose other destinations.

2. Perceptions linger that Hawaii is anti-visitor. We suggest the problems are caused by over-tourism; having too many people here at one time. That’s the sentiment from HTA and many residents. A huge change is in the air, but with the amount of money at stake, will reducing tourism cause economic hardship?

3. Higher than expected Hawaii vacation costs. While prices are up from the grocery store to airline tickets, and everywhere in between, Hawaii seems to have fared much worse in this area than some other destinations. Hawaii hotel prices are stratospheric, as are Hawaii car rentals. Then we add the highest visitor accommodation taxes in the country. It isn’t a good equation.

In the last study, Hawaii repeat visitors accounted for a staggering 68% of all arrivals.

In 2019, statewide, repeat visitors accounted for 68% of all arrivals, a number that had been rising.

Did you know that on average a return visitor to Hawaii has been back to the islands more than seven times.

The percentage of repeat visitors varies by place of origination:

U.S. West – 81%
Japan – 68%
Canada – 65%
U.S. East – 59%

When visitors return to Hawaii, they head to these islands:

Oahu – 55%
Maui – 30%
Big Island – 17%
Kauai – 14%

What is the value of returning Hawaii guests.

Guests that return provide airlines, accommodations, and almost everyone with a regular income stream. Thus, the loyalty of returning guests has made them a cherished asset, especially since they tend to also be the brand advocates for Hawaii. They become influencers with a broad reach across social media, and in comments on websites such as Beat of Hawaii. Many of Hawaii’s return visitors, for example, have been regulars on Beat of Hawaii for ten years or more. A familiar name, Colleen, who we’ve subsequently met in person, has contributed hundreds of comments about Hawaii since 2009.

Other reasons that returning guests are so important.

Return guests are said to spend more because they already value Hawaii and know it meets or exceeds their expectations. They’re also more likely to accept paid upgrades and ancillary options for the same reason. It’s easier to manage expectations with return visitors who simply know what’s reasonable.

Now the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has the ball.

It’s in their court, to see what happens next. An organization focused on one aspect of Hawaii, which is very important and meaningful to all, now has to embrace everyone to tackle these important issues and help set the direction for the state. If you were in their shoes, what would you do?

We leave you with today’s comment from Una, a reader on Beat of Hawaii.

“If covid proved anything Hawaii needs tourists to support their state infrastructure which they have been getting from the (exorbitant) taxes on everything. Tourism seems to now be the only thing supporting their economy, so go ahead, “marginalize tourists” and good luck with that!

Note: The data used was from 2019, which is the last year before Covid. The next comparison years will be 2022 and 2023.


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424 thoughts on “Why Hawaii’s Repeat Visitors Aren’t Returning – Does Anyone Care?”

  1. We have been waiting about 3 years to get to Maui and we’re able to go in May . I will say I have no desire to return . We had a great time and yes it was expensive and we new that ahead of time . I’m so happy we went and I can cross it off my list . Most of the locals we interacted with were nice however there was a lot that weren’t . Travel books say to obey the laws etc and we did . Speed limits etc . Many of the locals do not . Much of Maui is poor by todays standards with abandon cars throughout the island . While the beautiful pictures are all true there is a side to Hawaii that is not depicted in the tourism books . I traveled over 5000 miles from eastern US but there are just as pretty beaches and mountains a lot closer

  2. My first visit to Hawaii was in 1968. Having worked for the airlines, I have been able to visit over 60 times. Of course, things have changed over the years; however, I still love visiting Hawaii. My family and I visited Christmas 2021 and because of the QR rules and all of the restrictions, I felt for the first time no aloha from the airport to the hotel to the car rental. When we returned for Easter 2022, life had improved, especially because the QR was eliminated. We plan to visit for Thanksgiving and Christmas 2022 becuase we do love Hawaii.

  3. I am a long time return visitor to Hawaii, and these changes make me sad, Because the Hawaiian islands have always been known for their hospitality and “aloha spirit”. I stayed at Four Seasons in Wailea, Maui in February and the prices were astronomical. Yes, everything has gone up, but these rates were more than double what they were 10 years ago when my late husband and I used to visit.

  4. Aloha
    I’m retired and would love to volunteer for their Organic Gardens Produce stands, Hotel customer service desk, airport customer service desk, in exchange for room and board on Maui Hawaii Island. I’ve been to Hawaii in April 1975 spring break before graduating from High School and didn’t want to leave, I’ve been dreaming of the opportunity again.


  5. I’ve been a repeat visitor to Honolulu 9 times. Have always had a wonderful time but notices the steep increase cost of absolutely everything. Can’t have a decent meal under $150 a couple.

  6. If Hawaii wants fewer visitors than quit granting developers and hotel chains permission to build more new hotels and condos!!!! How dumb can you be? Does no one see the connection here??? As they tear down the old hotels and condos turn the lots into a public park. But, it will never happen because the City of Honolulu wants the tax revenue. How else can they pay for that incredibly expensive light rail system that will never even come close to being self supporting, and will have to be subsidized forever by tax dollars. Time to throttle back the taxing and spending by the mayor and city council who think the islands can accommodate all of their silly schemes.

    1. 3 thousand dollars for a week rental of a car and food that’s OK and hotels raising the prices with fees and taxes 50 dollars a day just to park the car.and on and on so yes we will not be going back after 10 years of alot of love for the islands to many other places to see

  7. I hear many people who live in hawaii saying that if people don’t want to spend the money to come then stay home. That is the wrong mentality. Many of us do want to spend money. It is just what is reasonable for us to spend to go. There is only so far you can raise prices and taxes on tourists before Hawaii becomes a playground for the rich alone. Once that happens then Hawaii will become unaffordable for locals as well. I live on Long Island and if we in this area took the same attitude our rents and house prices would be even higher. New York City has a lot of tourism and we encourage it. It helps to keep already high costs down. The difference for New York is we have a much more diversified economy that can survive a drop in tourism.

    1. Hawaiʻi is already a “playground for the rich alone.” Many locals work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. There has been a steady flow of residents, particularly Native Hawaiians, who have effectively been forced to leave their home in search of a better quality of life for their families. Those that stay contend with the effects of over tourism – extreme traffic congestion, environmental degradation, strained infrastructure, water shortages, etc. Moreover, most tourists spend money in resort zones flowing into mainland corporations, not the truly local economy. We don’t Need exploitive min. wage service jobs. We Need to reform tourism into an industry that is actually in reciprocity with both residents and the ʻāina itself.

      1. It Sounds more like the issue is not tourism itself but how Hawaii has let the big corporation abuse it which is happening even more now. The government needs to find a way to make the big chain hotels reinvest in the local economy, not funnel money out. Big companies will not like that but there has to be a compromise somewhere. I understand the frustrations of locals but over taxing and charging tourists won’t work. Hawaii had a good agricultural economy in the 70’s and 80’s more balanced with tourism and prior generations moved away from it to tourism. Now that is hurting Hawaii because it has to import everything and now tourism is too big a part of the economy. But you can’t bite that hand to hard or else more will be hurt.

    1. Thanks, Don for making this point. We have been coming since 2006 and a huge draw is learning local culture and customs – new and old. We have enjoyed talking with so many wonderful locals and other long-time visitors and consider it a privilege to be welcomed back. We try to take the long-range look at the current situation and though it has become incredibly expensive, hope to continue to visit and learn. We arrive Monday for my 50th birthday.

  8. I’m more likely to visit, more often, from California with reduced crowds, environmental impact, and social impact. Even at higher costs, I can feel better that I’m not ruining a place I think is so special.

    I havent returned since the pandemic began, not out of spit, but out of respect and at mayors’ requests.

    What I’d like to see is a Hawaii less dependent on tourism, resulting in a better place to live for it’s residents. The magic of Hawaii lays in it’s people, environment and culture. If we continue to destroy that in the name of tourism, there will be nothing left to your.


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