Growth in tourism is affecting Hawaii residents’ quality of life
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June 3, 2018
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
When looking at solutions to overtourism, Hanauma Bay State Park is considered a success. The park limits the number of people a tour company can bring to the bay and introduced admission fees and a mandatory educational video. Over a decade, those new policies reduced visitors by 20 percent. Visitors walked down to the water after viewing the educational video Wednesday.
Stalled rental cars routinely dot the beautiful green vistas of Waipio Valley, a sacred place where Hawaiian royalty once lived in the Hamakua district of Hawaii island.
They get left there by hordes of intrepid tourists seeking an authentic Hawaiian experience who haven’t learned the importance of investing in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the steep terrain.
“Part of the Hawaiian culture is to share it with aloha, but we have to do it responsibly,” said Micah Alameda, who runs the Noelani of Waipi‘o bed-and-breakfast operation with fiancee Charlee Reucia, whose family has lived in Waipio Valley for generations.
Alameda said the property and others like it once attracted mostly hikers, but social media has raised its profile and people now come from all over the world. There are speeding cars, tight parking and foul conditions at the portable toilets on the beach, and trespassing is increasing, especially by visitors who want to see Hiilawe Falls. The growing number of nonresident property owners and tourists means residents don’t always know their neighbors.
“We tell our guests our story and we do our best to tell them where they can and can’t go. We want this place to remain special for our daughter Lily and the generations to come, so we all have to do our part,” Alameda said.
Alameda said he supports managing tourism in Waipio Valley, which has become representative of the strain that increasing visitor volume has put on local infrastructure and communities throughout the state.
There haven’t been wide-scale boycotts or marches against the visitor industry as in other destinations around the world, but there have been periodic episodes of resistance, such as the protests that greeted the now-defunct, interisland Hawaii Superferry in 2007. And, in 2013, the Kailua Neighborhood Board made world news when it passed a resolution asking the Hawaii Tourism Authority to quit marketing vacation rentals in the Windward community’s residential areas.
Growing concern that Hawaii could see 10 million visitor arrivals this year moved the state Legislature to cut the HTA’s marketing budget and pass a bill that applies transient accommodations taxes, previously assessed only against room charges, to resort fees and other hotel receipts as well.
State Sen. Cynthia Thielen (D-Kailua) and Sen. Glenn Wakai (D-Kalihi) also objected to the renomination of current HTA chairman Rick Fried, who they said represented the old guard. Thielen said HTA needs a new plan to address the trend in which more visitors are coming to Hawaii but are spending less and causing resident satisfaction to plummet.
Economist Paul Brewbaker, who spoke at a recent Hawaii Economic Association luncheon, said the state took in $2 billion less in inflation-adjusted tourism receipts last year than in 1989 when there were 2.9 million fewer visitors.
At the same time, Carl Bonham, executive director of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii (UHERO), said the state’s allocation of transient accommodations tax revenue to the county governments for tourism-related activities has been capped since 2010, “so as the number of visitors has grown, TAT revenues to the counties have not.”
As a result, UHERO’s county forecast released Friday said the “impact of the record-breaking growth of visitor numbers on existing infrastructure and residents’ quality of life has become a significant concern, particularly on the neighbor islands.”
The unprecedented arrivals growth means that about 1 in every 8 people statewide are now visitors. On Oahu more than 1 in 10 people are tourists and on Hawaii island it’s about 1 in 7. On Kauai and Maui, more than 1 in four people are visitors.
James Mak, a research fellow for UHERO and professor emeritus at UH-Manoa, doesn’t think Hawaii suffers from overtourism but rather overcrowding at popular spots and during peak travel periods. Still, the situation has left him asking if it’s “time to shift from marketing to managing tourism.”
Kalani Kaanaana, HTA director of Hawaiian cultural affairs, said that after this year’s legislative session, the agency began looking at shifting dollars, including some previously earmarked for marketing, into programs that manage the destination. He said HTA is considering doubling its environmental sustainability fund to nearly $1.2 million. If that happens, HTA might update its 2007 survey on state park users, he said.
“We are striving to find balance,” Kaanaana said.
Mak points to Hanauma Bay State Park as an example of successful tourism management. The park closes on Tuesdays to allow for upkeep, shuts down parking when the visitor count reaches certain thresholds, charges entry fees and requires guests to watch educational videos before visiting the crescent-shaped beach.
Due to a crush of sunrise spectators and tours, Maui’s Haleakala National Park recently adopted a reservation system limiting the number of cars entering the park before sun-up. The state is moving forward with plans to limit the number of daily visitors to Haena State Park on Kauai’s North Shore to 900, less than half of the 2,000 currently allowed. Before the lava closures, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was considering similar adjustments.
Critics fear such attempts at managing overcrowding could restrict visitor growth. But the rules at Hanauma Bay weren’t an issue for Indiana visitor Pam Terry, who went snorkeling Wednesday.
“We understand that it’s very important to protect the heritage of Hanauma Bay,” Terry said. “We don’t mind similar restrictions elsewhere as long as they are communicated to us and we can plan around them. It’s a good idea to preserve where we live.”