“How much is enough?” I asked in my column last week.

But the question was mostly rhetorical. Look around. I think that we all know the answer.

For 50 years we have relied on the growth of tourism to fuel our economy. It’s made us richer (62 percent growth in income since 1960), it’s bought us houses (40 percent increase in home ownership), and it’s provided our local governments with a steady supply of cash.

But we’ve always known that there was a limit. And today, we are reaching the end of the line.

The problem is, nobody knows how to put the brakes on nor what will take its place.

Double decker tour bus and trolley pulled up with visitors fronting the Capitol building and Saint Damien Statue along Beretania Street. 13 april 2016.

A double-decker tour bus and trolley makes a stop at the Hawaii State Capitol building.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our Limits

Tourism is limited by three major factors— our roads, our houses and our atmosphere.

As I’ve written about many times before, the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan Update clearly states that Kauai doesn’t have the infrastructure for more than 25,000 tourists per day— yet, recently we’ve been reaching above 29,000 per day. Every time we sit in gridlocked traffic, we are experiencing the joy of life on an over-capacity island. And, there is no real traffic solution in sight.

While the Department of Transportation has identified $3.1 billion in priority traffic projects on Kauai, over the next 20 years there will be less than $500 million available for the entire state. With the majority of Kauai’s funding going toward maintenance, in the words of the Tourism Strategic Plan, “it is unlikely Kaua’i’s road system will be expanded over the next 20 years.”

But while traffic is just an inconvenience (albeit one that comes with a high economic cost), our lack of housing is a crisis. The County of Kauai projects that we could face a 5,000 home deficit by 2035. Every time we say goodbye to another friend forced to move off-island, we’ve lost another battle in the war for housing.

And tourism isn’t helping. As the Tourism Strategic Plan Update outlines, 12.6 percent of Kauai’s housing is being used for visitors instead of residents and the county estimates that up to 25 percent of houses on island are vacant or seasonal.

But these impacts aren’t occurring proportionately around the island.

In Hanalei, where more than one in three houses are being used for visitor accommodations, we can get a good glimpse into a dystopian future of unimpeded tourism. The profusion of vacation rentals have not only transformed the character of the once-quiet beachside community, but they have ensured that the cost of housing there is far out of reach for local residents. The cheapest house currently available for sale in Hanalei (two bedroom, one bath, quarter acre of land) is $1.4 million.

And, the final blow to the unimpeded growth of tourism is climate change. In order to stay under two degrees of temperature change— we need drastic emissions cuts, starting immediately. Yet, even if Hawaii could completely electrify its ground transportation and convert entirely to renewable energy over the next 30 years (which we absolutely need to do), air travel at current levels makes our necessary carbon reduction goals impossible to meet.

So, that’s it— let’s put a cap on tourism and start farming or something, right?

Not exactly.

Legal Barriers

There are many places around the world that have begun instituting tourist caps. But they don’t have to comply with the U.S. Constitution.

The 14th Amendment guarantees the freedom to travel. If you are a U.S. citizen, you have an uninfringeable right to travel anywhere within the country. And, as I wrote last week, Hawaiian Airlines isn’t about to start limiting their flights.

So there are at least 318 million people who have the constitutional right to travel to Hawaii— and the airlines will continue to be more than willing to drag them across the Pacific.

Many foreign countries add hefty airport taxes to both reduce the visitor count and help pay for their impact. For example, in an an effort to mitigate climate change, the United Kingdom taxes air travelers based on the distance they are flying — with fees as high as $200.

Part of what makes Hawaii so attractive to visitors is that all of our best attractions are completely free.

Here in the U.S., while there is a small international departure tax which goes to the federal government, local airports can’t tax more than $4.50. So at least for now, high departure taxes are off the table.

But enough of what we can’t do.

Our dual state and local land use law ensures that our county governments can control where development occurs. This is probably the most powerful tool available in limiting the growth of tourism.

Here on Kauai, there have been 4,693 resort units permitted since 2000 (notably, only the Coco Palms Hotel has been permitted since the economy crashed in 2007). Yet only about half of them have been built. And, with no expiration date on the remaining entitled projects, we have a loaded gun of new resort units that could be built at any time.

Kipu Falls, on the east side of Kauai, was closed after visitors died there.

A opular tourist destination, Kipu Falls, on the east side of Kauai, was closed after visitors died there.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

But the takings clause of the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made applicable to the states through the 14th Amendment makes it difficult to change the zoning on those entitled parcels without providing just compensation for the tremendous loss in value.

Because, as described in a Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly journal article on growth management in Hawaii, “a regulation that prohibits a previously permitted use of property may constitute a taking if it results in too great a reduction in the value of the property.”

While it would ultimately be up to a court to decide, the near certainty of a divisive and protracted legal battle (see my earlier piece on Nukolii) would likely prevent any prudent county government from going down this road.

But there are still 352 acres of vacant land on Kauai which have General Plan resort designation but no existing entitlements. In this case, because no permits have been issued or exactions given, the land use designation can still be changed.

According to the Hastings journal article, “regulations that merely diminish the value of certain pieces of property do not constitute ‘takings’ for which compensation is required” if the “net benefits to the public” outweigh the burden imposed by the regulation.

But reducing the availability of land for resort development is just a starting point.

The Cost Of Nature

Part of what makes Hawaii so attractive to visitors is that all of our best attractions are completely free. If you go skiing, or to Disneyland, or even to a National Park— you have to pay to play. But, it doesn’t cost any money to set up a towel at Poipu Beach or to step out on the boardwalk at the meticulously maintained Alakai Swamp Trail.

Taking the examples of Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, and Akaka Falls State Park, we need to start charging for entrance to more of our state parks. Here on Kauai, plans for charging entry fees to non-residents at Koke’e State Park and Ke’e Beach are already under way. And as more state parks begin to charge entrance fees, the counties will have more leverage in the fight to receive a higher portion of the transient accommodations tax.

As the Hawaii Tourism Authority explains, our “visitor market is price sensitive, and any increase could drive a traveler to a competing destination.” So, while I know this sounds crass, increasing prices not only reduces total visitor arrivals, but it also helps ensure that the visitors who are coming are ones that will spend lots of money.

Continued enforcement against illegal vacation rentals, higher property taxes on visitor accommodations, and increased user fees on resort developments are all important county tools as well.

It Just Keeps Getting Harder

While limiting the growth of tourism will be challenging—  even more difficult is what to replace it with. As I’ve written before, if you want your children to have the same opportunities that you have, then we need economic growth.

But, as economist Paul Brewbaker has said, “among all the islands, Kauai is most dependent on the visitor sector.”

And it’s this disproportionate reliance on tourism that has consistently squelched any realistic conversation on the necessity of economic diversification.

Add more industrial zoning? Tourists don’t want to see manufacturing facilities.

A dairy on agricultural land in Mahaulepu? But there’s a Hyatt nearby.

Farming on your agricultural homestead? Just rent out a room on Airbnb instead.

With an economy predicated on the unlimited growth of tourism, we will never be able to take the hard steps necessary for economic diversification. But there are limits, we are reaching them, and closing our eyes to reality won’t solve this intractable problem.

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