As pandemic sparks mass tourism, islands seek to reconnect with nature


WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Since the coronavirus emptied Hawaii of its tourists, seals have basked on beaches, fish swim closer to shore, and the turquoise water of America’s famous Hanauma Bay is 55% clearer, said a marine biologist.

Waikiki Beach is nearly empty due to business downturn caused by coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States on April 28, 2020. REUTERS / Marco Garcia

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

But the absence of thousands of visitors a day has been a boon to fishing, coral reefs and other aspects of the fragile island ecosystem that has degraded due to tourism and climate change.

As islands around the world grapple with similar challenges, some authorities see the pandemic as an opportunity for change. Before opening the floodgates again to mass tourism, some wonder how much they want to return to this model.

“The path we were on before COVID was not sustainable,” said Celeste Connors, executive director of Hawaii Green Growth, one of the many United Nations centers set up around the world to advance sustainable development locally. .

“The number of tourists arriving was actually having a negative impact on the community and environmental resources,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hawaii has yet to set a reopening date to tourists and has not announced any plans to limit visitors. But officials have said they want to make a change, and the coronavirus could accelerate it.

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

The pandemic could help small-scale tourism offerings thrive as 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 the world this year.

Popular places from the Philippines to the Faroe Islands have briefly closed to visitors in recent years, to allow their ecosystems to recover. But no one could have imagined the several-month closure imposed by the coronavirus.

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

The work could allow them to monitor for the first time the impact of tourism on the local ecosystem.

“There is hope that if we can establish a baseline from what we are learning now, we will have an argument to try and preserve this,” said Kevin Chang, head of KUA, an advocacy organization. community management of natural resources in Hawaii.

KUA has compiled a list of dozens of ideas for a post-pandemic green recovery, such as using federal stimulus funds to create a conservation body and making some tourist sites accessible only with guides to create jobs and limit capacity.

These have been shared with the state government, which has yet to present a stimulus package.

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

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

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

But not all islands feel the same.

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

“Some are just going to go back to business as usual,” Brown said.


In some places, the abandonment of mass tourism may be due to necessity rather than choice.

On the Philippine island of Siargao, farmers left the fields to become tour guides when the number of visitors increased about three years ago, said Alfredo Coro, vice mayor of the city of Del Carmen.

Siargao was voted the best island in the world in a survey by Condé Nast Traveler magazine last year.

But since the coronavirus hit, the government has encouraged people to return to farming, and many are doing so, Coro said. The state provided seeds and bought locally grown rice for redistribution to the population.

“When they switched to tourism it was good for their income, but what happened was we became dependent on imports,” he said. “I think (people) are starting to see what we’ve been preaching all along.”

Coro hopes that when tourism resumes, some islanders will continue to farm because they recognize its value, if only to feed their families during a disaster.

Likewise, some Hawaiians have been returning to fishing since the start of the pandemic, said Mac Poepoe, a native fisherman and community leader on Molokai Island.

“Now everyone wants to learn to hunt, they want to learn how to catch fish,” Poepoe said.

Molokai has resisted tourism for years, and its people rely heavily on fishing and subsistence farming.

It has been less affected by the coronavirus crisis than other islands, said Poepoe, although statistics show that many residents of Molokai were already living in poverty.

“I think this highlights the reality that maybe we should go back to the land and manage it properly so that we can take care of our people, rather than relying on outside sources,” he said. .

Reporting by Nellie Peyton; edited by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit


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