United Airlines announced Thursday that it plans to add 400,000 additional passenger seats to the islands next year.
The extra seats could boost Hawaii’s visitor arrivals by 5 percent. With arrivals expected to exceed 9 million this year, that could mean 450,000 more tourists next year. That would put Hawaii on the road to 10 million visitors annually.
Nowhere in the newspaper article about the announcement does someone from the state or the tourism industry say, “More airline seats to Hawaii is wonderful news, but now we must sit down and seriously address the impact ‘over-tourism’ is already having on our residents and our communities.
Over-tourism is what happens when too many visitors crowd into a place, ruining everyday experiences for local residents as well as for the tourists themselves. The masses of visitors all arriving at once to infringe on the quality of local life.
Over-tourism is a play on words to say, “Stop. We are fed up.” Or it can mean, “Help, we are badly overbooked. Too many people coming to Hawaii.”
The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s reaction to United Airlines’ announcement of more airline seats was celebratory. HTA is the state’s leading agency for tourism development and marketing.
HTA president and CEO George Szigeti said, “Our state is fortunate there is such strong travel demand for Hawaii and that United Airlines recognizes expanding its service to the neighbor islands.”
“Everyone is concentrating on providing good experiences for visitors, but what about us? What about our serenity?” — Nita Prigian, East Oahu resident
You’d get a more somber reaction from local residents engaging in daily jostles with visitors to get a table at their favorite neighborhood hangouts or to find parking places at popular hiking trails.
“I can’t handle it anymore,” said East Oahu resident Nita Prigian on Saturday as she pushed through masses of tourists at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market to buy some anthuriums.
“Everyone is concentrating on providing good experiences for visitors, but what about us? What about our serenity?” Prigian says.
State Sen. Gil Riviere wonders the same thing.
“Every two weeks I see some kind of press release saying more and more visitors are coming here and I think, you’re kidding me,” Riviere says. “There is no mention of how the state is going to start managing the impact of increasing visitor arrivals on the local population.”
Riviere, who represents Oahu’s North Shore, is one of the strongest voices in the Legislature calling for more than just lip service concerning tourism’s impact on Hawaii’s neighborhoods and natural resources.
Over-tourism is happening at Hawaii’s farmers’ markets and in the long lines at small eateries that used to be local haunts; in neighborhood parks, on hiking trails and at the beaches. Not just Waikiki, but also in Kailua, Haleiwa and Waianae.
There are growing over-tourism protest movements today in cities like Venice and Barcelona and London, Reykjavik and Seoul, where neighborhoods are disrupted by tour buses delivering thousands of visitors. Critics are saying, “let’s focus on better tourism management instead of worrying so much about attracting more visitors.”
Nobody wants their country to become like Iceland, where inexpensive airfares have encouraged more tourists each year than there are residents (1.6 million visitors there last year vs. 332,000 Iceland residents).
Over-tourism is the dirty little secret that Hawaii’s tourism industry and Gov. David Ige’s administration seem reluctant to confront.
“If increasing numbers of tourists damage Hawaii’s fragile environment then what is the point of a visitor sitting five hours in an airplane seat to get here?” — Annette Kaohelaulii, Hawaii Ecotourism Association
The Hawaii Tourism Authority says it has never done a study on how many tourists is too many for the islands.
Annette Kaohelaulii is a board member of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, a non-profit that describes itself as “dedicated to promoting responsible travel and educational programs.”
Kaohelaulii, speaking as an individual and not a board member, says she is stunned that the HTA doesn’t have a carrying capacity study in it current five-year strategic plan.
“HTA talks about promoting sustainable tourism in Hawaii but that seems to mean sustaining the current high number of visitor arrivals, not sustaining Hawaii’s unique environment,” Kaohelaulii says. “If increasing numbers of tourists damage Hawaii’s fragile environment then what is the point of a visitor sitting five hours in an airplane seat to get here?”
The HTA was more openly concerned about over-tourism in 2002-2008 when Rex Johnson was HTA’s president and CEO.
When tourism arrivals rose to 7.5 million visitors in 2006, Johnson spoke with a forthrightness that has seldom been heard since in Hawaii’s tourism industry.
“If you try to stuff too many visitors into this space, it begins to compromise your product,” Johnson said. “Service begins to suffer. There are longer queues at restaurants. And there is overcrowding at beaches, parks and airports. If we lose this thing called ‘aloha’ we are just like any other sand-and-surf destination.”
“I don’t believe we can afford to go there,” said Johnson.
In its latest five year strategic plan, the HTA for the first time addresses the frustration and unhappiness local residents are expressing abut increasing numbers of visitors.
The plan says that a majority of people believe that “their islands are run for tourists at the expense of local people.” And that tourism brings, more problems than benefits to Hawaii’s people.
HTA’s way of combatting angst about tourism has been to launch a program to “enhance residents’ understanding of the value of tourism.”
The agency produced a TV ad campaign to promote what it says are the far-reaching economic benefits of tourism to many people, not just hotel employees and workers in other tourism-related businesses.
Riviere berates HTA’s commercials for their cluelessness about what’s angering local residents about mass tourism.
“The HTA is not taking any responsibility for the impact of hundreds of thousands more tourists on local communities,” he says. “All the HTA’s commercials are saying is ‘get on board residents. Make sure tourism happens,’ when local residents are crying out for some balance, some acknowledgement of the need to better protect their neighborhoods and Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources.”
Riviere tried unsuccessfully this year to get a bill passed to shift 15 percent of HTA’s marketing money to the Department of Land and Natural Resources for repair and maintenance of hiking trails parks and beaches, which was to have kicked in when arrivals reach 9 million visitors as expected this year.
State parks administer Curt Cottrell says, “Impacts to parks are typically aesthetic in nature due to overcrowding, with park-specific impact due to inadequate parking and a lack of comfort stations.”
The state parks division didn’t receive anything extra this year as Riviere had hoped, just the same $3 million it usually gets annually from transient accommodation revenues.
HTA’s Szigeti emailed me this statement, but didn’t address how HTA will deal with over-tourism:
“As we look to the future, sustainable tourism is the key to Hawaii’s continued success economically. Preserving our natural resources is a core quality that distinguishes our way of life and makes Hawaii such a desired place to visit. We must fully embrace environmental sustainability if we are going to continue to enjoy the quality of life we treasure in the islands, while realizing success as a global travel destination.”
Riviere says he will keep pounding on lawmakers next year to find more money to mitigate the damage from over-tourism to Hawaii’s small communities and natural resources
Kaohelaulii has a more direct solution: “The answer is we need less people.”