In the more than 20 years I have covered the Hawaii State Legislature I’ve seldom — if ever — heard a state lawmaker ask: “How many tourists are too many?”
Usually legislators’ eyes light up like slot machine jackpot signs when the Hawaii Tourism Authority makes its annual boast that it has lured more visitors here than ever before — last year almost 9 million.
Increased tourism spending means more tax revenue for lawmakers’ pet projects, more cash for problems their constituents want solved.
But this year is different. Lawmakers cannot ignore local residents increasing angst about the state’s overcrowded and eroding hiking trails, tour buses hogging all the parking spaces at their favorite beach parks, and their once-quiet neighborhoods becoming staging areas for hikes to waterfalls and destination wedding photo shoots.
“There is an imbalance between how much money the state is making from tourism and how much is going back to protect the maintain the parks, “ said Sen. Donna Kim.
Kim was speaking at a hearing on Senate Bill 703, a measure that proposes to shift a portion of the millions of dollars spent on tourism marketing to instead pay for the repair and maintenance of state trails and beaches and natural areas impacted by hordes of tourists.
“I am glad we are having this discussion about the tension between our visitors and our natural resource. It is very intense, the sheer numbers of people coming to state parks,” said Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. Case ‘s department is responsible for managing 1.3 million acres of state land.
Case says the success of HTA’s marketing can be seen at popular tourist attractions such as the Diamond Head State Monument, which last year received a record 1,025, 318 visitors, up from 901,136 in 2015.
Long lines of cars and tour vehicles wait in line to get into Diamond Head each day from the moment the crater opens its gate at 6 a.m.
State parks administrator Curt Cottrell called it “a huge paradigm shift” for the Legislature to finally address the impacts of tourism on Hawaii’s natural resources.
“There has been a need to discuss this for years,” said Cottrell.
What is amazing is the state still has not done a study to determine how many tourists the islands can sustain.
Kim asked George Szigeti, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, “What is your goal? What is the turning point to how many visitors the state can handle?”
“We have not discussed a cap on the number of tourists,” Szigeti said. “There is no magic number.”
Daniel Nahoopii, the HTA’s director of tourism research, said, “We are not talking about numbers until we do a detailed study. There needs to be a better study.”
Sen. Karl Rhoads said it might be a good time to slow down on tourism marketing.
“We can be victims of our own success, “ said Rhoads.
But Nahoopii spoke in favor of continuing to strengthen state’s tourism marketing push saying more tourists are always needed to cover slow periods and economic slumps.
North Shore Sen. Gil Riviere says the North Shore is reeling from ever increasing numbers of visitors. “More rental cars. More tourists, more people. I think more than half of the tourists to Oahu go out to the North Shore. They are impacting the district immensely.”
Said Riviere: “You could fit more people here but at what cost? If 9 million is not enough, maybe 10 million, but not on Oahu.”
HTA president Szigeti says the authority’s marketing is trying to direct more tourists away from Oahu.
“We have to get more tourists dispersed to the neighbor islands, they have the hotel rooms. The Big Island has just 55 percent occupancy now, Kauai has 65 percent occupancy,” he said.
To mitigate some of the visitor impact, the Senate’s Tourism, Water and Land, and Public Safety Committees agreed last month to advance a bill to give 2 percent of the revenues from the transit accommodations tax to the DLNR. That means about $9 million coming directly from tourists will be added annually to the DLNR’s fund for the management, maintenance and development of trails, parks, beaches and natural resources.
The DLNR is already receiving $3 million annually from the Legislature for the fund; so if the bill wins full legislative approval later this spring, it would mean a total $12 million each year to maintain and improve parks and beaches and natural areas for local residents and tourists alike.
That’s a 300 percent increase.
Parks administrator Cottrell says he can see many immediate uses for the funding such as fixing park bathrooms, repairing trails, hiring more interpretive guides and irrigating dry and brown parks such as Sand Island as well as beginning to develop new state parks on land the state has already acquired at Lipoa Point on Maui and Pupukea Paumalu Forest Reserve on Oahu.
But even with lawmakers’ increased awareness that tax money needs to be spent not only to draw tourists here, but also to protect Hawaii’s natural areas stressed by visitor overuse, a larger, negative feeling about tourism seems to be growing.
The HTA’s Resident Sentiment study done it 2015 showed that 58 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “The island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
Of the 1,660 local residents surveyed by phone, only 40 percent agreed tourism had been mostly positive for them and their family. This is the lowest number since the state began doing the study 30 years ago.
University of Hawaii economics professor James Mak points out that HTA has not done any follow up studies to find the reason for the local residents ill feelings about the tourism or on how to reverse the local residents’ negative thoughts that the future of the tourism economy is out of their hands.
That is a topic for another column on another day on how, if ever, Hawaii residents can return to feeling they have power over an economy that many seen to think has left them behind.