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JOHN De Fries still recalls fishing the waters off Waikiki Beach in Oahu as a kid in the 1960s. “Growing up, my family’s fishing grounds were a source of food first and recreation second,” he says. “Today they’re a playground surrounded by hotels.”
Born and raised in Waikiki, De Fries was appointed president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority in Sept 2020, when coronavirus shutdowns had the state’s economy reeling but the community and environment thriving.
In 2019, the state of 1.5 million people hosted a record 10.4 million visitors – unsustainable figures that had residents feeling sour. Though tourism netted US$2.07bil (RM8.65bil) in tax revenue that year, Hawaiians lamented its effects on traffic, beaches, and the cost of living.
For locals, the quietude of 2020 “was somewhat euphoric,” says De Fries. “It felt like we got our islands back.”
But that wasn’t sustainable either. Nor was the boom that happened in July, when visitor arrivals exceeded their 2019 level by 21% despite strict Covid-19 testing protocols, mask mandates, capacity restrictions, and staff shortages. That, says De Fries, “was like putting 220 volts of electricity through a 110-volt circuit.”
Rental cars became so scarce that U-Hauls were found in beach parking lots; resorts jacked up rates, with average stays at hotels in Maui of US$596 (RM2,487.41) a night in August; new taxes were sought; and vacation-starved visitors didn’t flinch.
What comes next is a radically transformed experience for visitors – and locals – hopefully, in a good way. For the first time, Hawaii’s tourism authority is majority-run by Hawaiian natives, rather than white mainlanders with hospitality degrees.
With the input of locals, who range from farmers to hotel owners, each of Hawaii’s four counties has created a strategic plan that stretches into 2025 and focuses on sustainable destination management rather than marketing.
The plan relies heavily on community involvement and visitor education. “In the past, visitors were spoon-fed what outsiders thought they wanted,” says Kainoa Horcajo, founder of the Mo’olelo Group, a Maui-based consultancy that helps hotels to reimagine their cultural experiences. “Now, it’s time to take a risk, challenge the visitor, and give them something real.”
Here are the ways your experience of the state might change in the near future, and possibly forever:
> You’ll need a reservation to visit popular natural attractions
Want to see the black sand beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park in Maui or cross the Kauai’s Kalalau Trail off your bucket list? You’ll now have to make a reservation anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days in advance, depending on the site and season.
The new system, which covers roughly a dozen of Hawaii’s most visited parks, is meant to curb traffic in local communities and tread more lightly on natural resources. Parking and entry fees for non-residents, which can cost from US$5 (RM21) to US$15 (63) per person, will also help to better maintain the sites.