Like thousands of others, I flew to Oahu for the World Conservation Congress this month.

There is a clear irony in having to board a jet plane in order to meet with like-minded individuals to discuss conservation and climate change. But probably nowhere in the world better represents both the impacts of humanity on the environment and our global dependence on unsustainable industries — like tourism.

One of my first sessions was on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“We have basically run out of time,” said economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The debate is no longer about the importance of nature or whether there are planetary limits, it’s now about “what to do — globally and locally.”

Visitors struggle to take off their snorkeling gear at Hanauma Bay.
Snorkelers struggle to take off their gear at Hanauma Bay, which is ecologically fragile and yet one of the most popular destinations for visitors to Oahu. Marina Riker/Civil Beat

This message was pervasive throughout every session. Except one.

The panel discussion on “Economic Growth and Environmental Stewardship” was focused around one simple message: We need more tourism.

“The expansion of tourism is essential for a healthy economy in Hawaii,” said Mark Dunkerley, CEO of Hawaiian Airlines. Because tourism and environmental stewardship go hand in hand, he said he is an “unabashed advocate of expanding the growth of tourism in our state.”

It felt like that final act in a magic show. I knew exactly what I’d see when the sheet was lifted, but I still couldn’t really believe it. Something, somewhere, didn’t add up. After four days of workshops on the collapsing biosphere, mass extinction, climate change and limits to growth, here we were talking about the need for more tourism.

We’re all so desperate for the magic to be real that we can’t see the trapdoor right in front of us.

Unmentionable Topics

I understand the need for economic growth. Struggling economies don’t build low-income housing, they don’t invest in social programs, and they definitely don’t reduce carbon emissions.

I also understand the stranglehold that tourism has on all of us. If you have a job and live in a house, then you have benefited from the growth of tourism. Nearly one in five Hawaii residents works in the tourist industry. Nothing else even compares to the economic power of tourism in Hawaii. And there’s nothing else waiting in the wings.

But, we are reaching our limits.

The Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan Update for 2016-2018 clearly states that our island doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle more than 23,000-25,000 tourists per day. Yet, we saw more than 29,000 daily tourists in both June and July — a 3 percent increase from last year.

Traffic on Kauai
Kauai is beautiful — when you’re not stuck in a traffic jam. Luke Evslin

If you live on Kauai, you know what those numbers mean. Gridlocked traffic, overcrowded beaches and hollowed-out neighborhoods from the profusion of transient vacation rentals.

The effects of tourism aren’t confined to our small island. Carbon emissions from air travel are about equivalent to emissions from all other ground transportation in Hawaii. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the findings of which are endorsed through the United Nations by nearly every country on Earth) recommends at least a 70 percent reduction in total global emissions by 2050, starting immediately.

If air travel stays consistent, that means we would need to reduce all other emissions nearly to zero by 2050. That’s not going to happen. (The state gets around this pesky problem by eliminating aviation emissions from its carbon reduction goals, as outlined in Act 234).

Yet, at this panel discussion on economic growth and environmental stewardship, both our infrastructure limitations and the emissions concerns of tourism went unmentioned.

And so I raised my hand. Not wanting to be that guy who tries to tell everyone that the party’s over, I nervously outlined my concern that we’ve exceeded our infrastructure limitations on Kauai and that even maintaining our current level of tourism makes the carbon reduction goals recommended by the United Nations impossible to meet. And, given those clear facts, did any of the panelists feel like there were any limits to the growth of tourism?

The answer, in short, was an unequivocal “no.”

Dunkerley said the airline industry is committed to reducing emissions starting in 2020. But he didn’t mention that, other than a talking point that allows airline executives to avoid the thorny topic of climate change, there seems to be no realistic route for the airline industry to begin reducing emissions at even close to the rate it is claiming.

Mayor Billy Kenoi Speaks Up

Like that moment when you realize that you’re dreaming, but you can’t manage to wake up, I spent the next two days floating from panel to workshop to press conference, waiting for someone to address tourism.

Finally, at the last panel discussion, I heard a response from an unexpected source. Each of the four Hawaii mayors was asked nearly the exact question I had asked Dunkerley.

Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi was the only one who got straight to the point. He explained the friendly competition between the mayors on stage, and that everyone always wants their island to be number one.

Mayor Hawaii island Billy Kenoi IUCN1. 5 sept 2016
Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi asked the question no one else would at the World Conservation Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“When we talk about tourism, what do we talk about? Visitor arrivals. Who’s first? Every year we’ve had more visitors than the year before … yay.”

But, after admitting that Hawaii Island consistently finishes last, Kenoi reversed the terms of the competition, and in a slow measured tone he asked the audience, “I just like know how much it takes for people to say ‘no more?’”

“We’ve got to change the way we measure the impact of hospitality and tourism, because you know what?” he said, while scanning the room and seeming to make eye contact with all 200 of us. “I’m cool with being number four.”

In five days at the International Union for Conservation of Nature conference, that was the most honest statement about tourism I heard. 

There is clearly no easy answer, but that isn’t an excuse to avoid the question altogether.

I’d like to hear from readers: As Kenoi asked, how much is enough? How do we manage the growth of tourism? How do we fuel the transition to other industries?

This isn’t a conversation that should be confined to the comments section of this column or social media — it’s a conversation we need to be having at every level of government, and with every candidate running for elected office in Hawaii.

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