As beach days get shorter and the sun sets over Waikiki ever closer to 6 p.m., the preliminary numbers are in for Hawaii’s peak visitor season.

Industry leaders and state tourism officials agree it was another good summer — with a record July making up for a marginally better June and a slight dip in August, according to statewide figures.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported a three-month summer take of $4 billion.

And the trend is clear: The state is on track to reach the authority’s year-end goal of 8.25 million visitors and a record $14.69 billion in visitor spending.

Tourists soak in another Waikiki sunset.

Tourists soak in another Waikiki sunset.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

And then what happens? And what takes place in five years — or 10?

Has it become an accepted truth that chasing an ever-increasing target number of visitors is really the best, most reliable or, perhaps, only way to increase the state’s economic growth?

And must the center of the visitor universe remain concentrated like a laser beam on Waikiki? How much more can the infrastructure handle?

How much is too much — or is that a sliding scale that needs to be readjusted with each redevelopment of hotel capacity?

The harsh experiences of another island paradise, the Indonesian island of Bali, which is in the midst of a frantic shift in gears, might offer us lessons.

That island bears similarities to Hawaii, but also differences. Bali’s history dates back thousands of years and carries a rich culture of art, dance, and music. The island has a Hindu majority in a country that’s largely Muslim. Yoga and meditation are widely practiced. As for visitors, the gentle pull for low-key cultural travelers in the 1970s at some point transformed into a powerful magnet for mass tourism.

Must the center of the visitor universe remain concentrated like a laser beam on Waikiki? How much more can the infrastructure handle?

In the early 1980s, fewer than 200,000 tourists came to Bali each year. By last year that annual number had swollen to more than 4 million foreign tourists — roughly matching the local population. Many arrive for short stays that have far more to do with beachside bars than cultural enrichment. This group has proven to be rough on the island’s infrastructure and demanding of its resources.

Take water. The Jakarta Post reports that the average per capita demand for clean water on the island is about 120 liters a day (about 32 gallons). For an occupied hotel room in one of the tourist districts, the requirements soar to 12 and a half times that level.

The structural stress on Bali has captured the attention of Indonesia’s government, which also wants to shift some of the tourism largesse to other parts of the country. After all, Bali is only one of roughly 17,000 islands in the country.

Seemingly living up to its name, the Tourism and Creative Industry Ministry came up with the idea for “Bali and Beyond” — a campaign that encourages tourists to use Bali as a jumping off point for further exploration of other islands.

The central government is promoting 16 “priority destinations” around the country to share in the visitor spending that currently goes mostly to Bali, along with sharing the wear and tear of international tourists in particular.

So far, results have been mixed. Many local governments are enthused about the plans. But at the inaugural “Bali and Beyond Travel Fair” held earlier this year, 90 percent of the participating tour operators and hotels were based in Bali. Adjustments take time.

Waikiki is not exactly overrun, and it’s not yet facing the same situation as Bali, but without some closer attention and some forethought, we may be headed in that direction.

The idea of encouraging more tourism on neighbor islands is of course not a new one. And many parts of the islands are just fine if they don’t see any more visitors at all, thank you very much.

Other areas would welcome more visitors. State officials are working hard to clear Kona Airport so it can once again become a second international port of entry in Hawaii, along with Honolulu. That direct access to the international market would help, but so might an effort to push the idea of moving “Beyond Honolulu.” The city could become a much more efficient transit point in helping visitors move to other island destinations without necessarily detouring into Waikiki.

This summer’s experience shows some instructive trends when it comes to the demand side of the tourism equation. Oahu’s experience was a bit uneven compared to a year ago, but visitor spending on Maui rose every month this summer, and was especially strong in July and August. Visitor spending was also up for at least two of the three summer months on Hawaii Island, Kauai and Maui.

And in the future, tourism on neighbor islands may not always have to translate as exorbitant rates at resort compounds. There could be more modest options for visitors who pack their sunscreen along with a respect for the finite and fragile state of Hawaii’s natural resources.

Encouraging more diversity among island destinations could maintain the “visitor experience,” while also honoring the “resident experience,” and most importantly, respecting the health of the land, the water and the ecosystem we are so fortunate to call home.

About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.