10 Million Visitors: Can Hawaii Survive Its Own Popularity?

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in an ongoing series, “Tourism’s Tipping Point,” that looks at the future of the vacation industry in Hawaii. 

Few issues are more critical for Hawaii’s economy: a growing number of tourists, spending less money per person, creating greater negative side effects to produce the same economic benefits generated three decades ago.

The surging number of visitors is pushing the limits of not only Hawaii’s beaches, hiking trails and once backwater neighborhoods, but also the state’s aloha spirit.

Some residents are so unhappy that a group on Kauai is asking visitors to follow a code of conduct on the island. People in one Oahu neighborhood are considering seceding from Honolulu to protest what they see as the city’s inability to manage a flood of tourists. Even visitors from Japan, a long-established market generally known for politeness and deep pockets, are drawing ire from some residents who don’t like tour buses on their streets and bicycles on the sidewalks.

“I think we have too many tourists,” says U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who spent years as an executive for Hawaii’s largest local hotel company before returning to Congress in 2018. “I think it’s a critical problem for us.”

“Fundamentally, I think that tourism is losing public support because of its over-intrusion into our daily lives here,” he said.

Azure blue and sandy shore of Waikiki Beach.

A record 10.2 million visitors are expected in Hawaii this year.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Where they were once generally tolerated and fairly scant, short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods have become a lightning rod for animosity, thanks to an explosion of such rentals brought about by Airbnb, VRBO and similar platforms.

In response, Maui residents last year voted to impose $10,000 a day fines on people operating illegal short-term rentals, and the Honolulu City Council in June passed a bill intended to shut down as many as 10,000 vacation rentals on Oahu.

The public still believes that tourism brings more benefits than liabilities, according to a 2018 Hawaii Tourism Authority survey. But the angst about its impact is so pervasive that two-thirds of Hawaii residents surveyed agreed with the statement: “This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”

Confronting The Problem

The first big step so far is that leaders like Case are willing to step up and bluntly discuss the problem. Even the hotel industry says it’s time to create a plan.

“We are an island, literally, not figuratively, and we have to make decisions about tourism policy with that in mind,” says Kekoa McClellan, the Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

McClellan stopped short of saying 10 million tourists was too many, but said, “What we do know is that no one in recent years has had that conversation about where we’re going with Hawaii’s tourism product.”

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources also is working on strategies. One program that officials say could be a case study is a new system designed to control crowds at Haena State Park on Kauai.

For its part, the tourism authority is focusing money on managing tourists, not just attracting more of them as it has mostly done in the past. Its budget for fiscal year 2020 calls for spending approximately $20 million of its $86.7 million budget on programs to promote safety, protect natural resources and perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture.

“We are an island, literally, not figuratively, and we have to make decisions about tourism policy with that in mind.” — Kekoa McClellan of the American Hotel and Lodging Association

The HTA has also hired the Pasadena-based geographic data analysis firm UberMedia to get a better handle on where visitors go.

The project will allow state officials to use cell phone metadata to identify the total numbers and profiles of tourists who visit particular zip codes and oft-trodden hot spots, like popular trails.

Jennifer Chun, HTA’s director of tourism research, said the data will be supplied to HTA only as aggregate numbers, without information about individuals.

Global Over-Tourism

Concerns about the negative effects of the visitor industry are hardly unique to Hawaii.

It’s a global phenomenon, a backlash driven in part by the sharing economy and social media. Vacation rental platforms are driving throngs of visitors to places largely insulated from tourist hordes in the past.

In an article that former Gov. Neil Abercrombie brought to a recent Honolulu City Council meeting to emphasize his frustration with Airbnb, The New Yorker chronicled the long-simmering backlash against tourism in Barcelona, focusing on the property rental platform. New York, San Francisco and Santa Monica all have passed laws to limit Airbnb-type rentals.

Sign holders in support of Bill 85 & 89 at the Honolulu City Council.

Supporters of bills to crack down on illegal vacation rentals flocked to a Honolulu City Council meeting in June, squaring off against rental operators who said Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway are vital to Hawaii’s economy.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And in a stunning example of the impact of social media on some of the most sensitive lands, an ecologically fragile canyon in Iceland featured in a Justin Bieber YouTube video became so overrun by visitors that the government had to close it to the public.

Searching For The Perfect Instagram

Hawaii’s isolation makes the situation particularly problematic.

It’s not just that tourism is the state’s biggest export, representing nearly 20% of non-farm jobs, or about 123,000 positions statewide. It’s also an issue for a native culture that is deeply connected to the land, rooted to a fundamental respect for the environment.

That cultural aspect deeply concerns officials with DLNR, which is charged with protecting the environment and Native Hawaiian cultural resources. As DLNR officials see it, visitors to Hawaii are focused less on respecting the land than they are on bagging trophy pictures to post on Instagram.

“Social media is the game-changer,” says Curt Cottrell, who runs Hawaii’s state parks for DLNR. “So we have a perfect storm of record numbers of visitors, and we have technology now that has blown the boundaries off of DLNR resources.”

Obscure sites once known only to locals or outdoors enthusiasts like hunters are now exposed to a global audience, he said.

“The ability to share that information exponentially I think has been a huge problem,” he said.

Asian tourists do selfie on top Diamond Head on July 24, 2014

Tourists shoot a selfie on top of Diamond Head in 2014. Social media makes getting to many cool places in Hawaii “a conquest, a notch in the belt,” says DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

For many, the concern runs deeper than a desire by locals to keep the best spots for themselves. It’s about a respect for the land and ocean that is central to Hawaiian culture.

Another thing that happens with social media — the combination of social media and high volume — is that you lose the basic respectful attitude that is traditional in Hawaii,” says Suzanne Case, DLNR chairwoman. “It becomes a matter of conquest, a notch in the belt. And so people want to go to as many places as possible and get a selfie and show that they were at this cool place.”

“The result,” she said, “is a lot of trespass and a lot of dangerous situations and a lot of entry into closed areas and a lot of risk to our first responders.”

The Numbers Grow, Dollars Don’t

Meanwhile, as the number of visitors has grown exponentially over the past three decades, the economic benefits have stayed much the same.

The high water mark for tourism financially was 1989. Approximately 6.5 million visitors came to Hawaii then and spent a total of $18 billion when adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars, data from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism show.

Up to that time, expenditures generally tracked visitor arrivals, says Paul Brewbaker, a Hawaii economist who has studied the tourism trends. But that started to change in the 1990s as spending per visitor dropped.

Adjusting for inflation, it’s taken nearly 30 years to get back to $18 billion, which Brewbaker calls “the magic number.” Meanwhile, Hawaii has almost 3.5 million more visitors than it did in 1989.

“This idea that tourism receipts have not grown while the number of people or the number of days that they occupy the islands has grown is problematic because all of the social costs associated with tourism are primarily associated with their physical presence,” Brewbaker said. “They drive around on the same roads, they go to the same beach, they show up on the same trail.”

At a certain point, the congestion becomes too much for everyone, he said.

David Kimo Frankel, a Honolulu lawyer who often represents Native Hawaiian clients in environmental disputes, participated in a lawsuit nearly 20 years ago in which the Sierra Club tried to force the state to quantify these costs. The goal was to force the Hawaii Tourism Authority to do an environmental impact assessment of its tourism marketing campaigns.

The Hawaii Supreme Court in 2002 tossed the suit in a narrow 3-2 decision, saying the Sierra Club hadn’t proven Frankel suffered direct harm from the HTA’s marketing campaign.

Now it’s not just environmentalists raising questions about over-tourism.

“We were talking about this back then, all the same things: overcrowded beaches, overcrowded roads, overcrowded trails,” Frankel said. “And I think we had 6 million tourists back then.”

“People want to go to as many places as possible and get a selfie and show that they were at this cool place.” — Suzanne Case, DLNR chairwoman

Meanwhile, some still take issue with aspects of the HTA’s marketing.

DLNR’s Cottrell points to a social media campaign — #lethawaiihappen – run by the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of HTA’s marketing partners.

“I have to throw my colleagues at HTA under the bus, and I really like working with them and they’re trying, but their catchphrase (is) ‘Let Hawaii Happen.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at that and said, ‘Seriously? The implied consent to do whatever and ‘Let Hawaii Happen.’

“And that’s a branded, big time, multimillion-dollar funded slogan traveling the world right now. And we’re dealing with the fruits of that perception. It’s happening all right.”

10.7 Million Tourists By 2022

Visitor numbers for 2019 are expected to reach 10.2 million, marking growth of 9% from just two years ago, according to DBEDT. The agency predicts that number will surge to 10.7 million by 2022.

Traditional capacity constraints — namely, limited accommodations and air seats — no longer appear to exist. The latest case in point: Southwest Airlines launched inaugural service to Hawaii in March with introductory, one-way fares of $49 for flights between Oakland and Honolulu.

“The airline industry I think will add seats as long as they can sell seats,” Cottrell said. “And so you have a pipeline of unlimited patronage.”

As for accommodations, Airbnb and other platforms have stepped up to add more inventory. Executives like Hawaiian Airlines’ chief executive, Peter Ingram, have acknowledged the platforms have been key to the industry’s growth.

“If you had asked me five or six or seven years ago, when we were below 8 million visitors, I would have said it would be difficult to grow without seeing more investment in hotel infrastructure in Hawaii,” Ingram told investment analysts late last year during a conference call.

The online brokers have changed everything, says Chris Tatum, a former longtime Marriott executive who is now chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“Historically, the number of visitors was a result of how many accommodations you had here,” he said. “Now, we don’t know how many accommodations there are.”

The dynamic could change in August. That’s the effective date of the core provisions of Honolulu’s new ordinance, which is designed to rein in illegal vacation rentals.

Crowded Diamond Head stairs to lookout.

The trail to the summit of Diamond Head often has lines like Disneyland.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We expect it could have an immediate impact,” McClellan said.

For tourism executives, limiting growth isn’t just about protecting neighborhoods and the environment. It’s also about making sure visitors have a good time, which is increasingly difficult at some of the more popular tourist spots.

Take Oahu’s Diamond Head trail. The mostly paved pathway up Hawaii’s iconic volcano draws some 3,000 hikers a day, DLNR officials say. That’s twice what it drew in 2007.

At times queues of hikers move like lines at Disneyland. DLNR’s Cottrell likened the path to the trail to the summit Mount Everest, where climbers recently have died not from falling but from exposure due to being caught in a long line of climbers snaking up the mountain. The lines might look strangely similar, but there was at least one key difference besides temperature.

“Fortunately, unlike Everest, we don’t have dead bodies,” he said.

‘Serene’ Nature It’s Not

But rescue workers have to assist someone about once every five days, DLNR officials say.

Socrates Bratakos, a Honolulu Fire Department assistant chief, confirmed the department assists someone on the trail about once a week.

The views of the azure ocean are spectacular, but it’s not a place to commune with nature. The road to the parking lot at the trailhead offers the first glimpse of how crowded the hike has become. Virtually everyone takes the same road, either by car, tour bus or foot.

Some lucky drivers can park for free halfway up the road at a scenic lookout. Perhaps luckier are those who find an open parking space in the main lot for $5. Those who can’t find a space have to turn around, park elsewhere and walk up the road, a route that leads at one point through a shockingly narrow tunnel where the lanes are too narrow to accommodate the tour buses that swoosh past hikers.

A bus straddles the center line of a road with lanes too narrow for the large vehicles that drive to the trailhead. Gwen Daub, a visitor from British Columbia, pressed against the wall of the tunnel as the bus drove past.

Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

On a recent Saturday, the parking lot is packed, and so is a red concession stand with a Dole logo selling tropical drinks served in carved-out pineapples. As usual for a sunny weekend, the trail has a throng of tourists with T-shirts, ball caps and backpacks.

A few husky men in camouflage hustle along with a portable speaker blasting Lil Nas X and Post Malone, shouldering past slower walkers.

Near the top, Kari and Kedar Rugg of Alpine, Utah, take in the view — and the crowds — with their three kids. Kedar Rugg says he didn’t expect to find the sort of bucolic, peaceful trail the family hikes back home in Utah. And he admits they got a late start, having driven in from an Airbnb in Waimanalo.

Still, he says, the vibe was disappointing, especially with the thumping hip-hop.

“You’re not getting that serene atmosphere with so many people on the trail and with the music on the trail,” he says. “It’s not the music we’d pick.”

Taking a break below the summit is Lisa Chiaretta of Santa Rosa, California. She reckons there were about a quarter of the people there are today when she went on the hike eight years ago. But she says she generally knew the hike would be crowded.

“We’re OK with it, but we didn’t expect a peaceful nature hike,” she says.

The iconic Diamond Head trail isn’t the only place on Oahu drawing worrisome crowds. Some hikes that were once relatively quiet, like the Manoa Falls and Maunawili Falls trails, are now among the top spots where the Honolulu Fire Department goes to rescue people. Officials with DLNR are now working on a project to make the Manoa Falls trail safer, with funding from the tourism authority. Places like Laniakea Beach and Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore are being overrun.

The neighbor islands are also suffering. Molokini Crater off Maui’s coast averaged 1,000 snorkelers and divers per day, DLNR reports, despite its designation as a marine life conservation district.

On Hawaii Island, nighttime viewing of manta rays is so popular that DLNR’s boating and ocean recreation chief, Ed Underwood, says, “You can almost literally walk across the top of people that are there watching the mantas every night.”

As for Diamond Head, DLNR officials say they need to better manage the attraction. Some use the term “carrying capacity” to describe how many more tourists Hawaii can handle. Cottrell uses a different phrase: Diamond Head, he says, has “exceeded its limit to acceptable change.”

The question is how to manage it. One idea is to open an alternate walking route to the trailhead. Another: to charge more than the current admission fee of $1 per person.

Acknowledging The Problem

But managing Diamond Head might be easier than solving the broader problems. The good news is that there is nearly universal agreement that there is a problem.

One of the latest and most sobering warnings came in February, in the form of a paper published by the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization. The paper’s authors were Frank Haas, the HTA’s former marketing director; Jim Mak, a UH economics professor who has published two books on tourism in Hawaii and elsewhere and Brewbaker, the Bank of Hawaii’s former longtime chief economist.

Titled “Charting A New Course For Hawaii Tourism,” the paper asserted that focusing on growing visitor arrivals as a sign of economic health had “masked a range of concerning underlying problems which, without change, will continue to undermine tourism’s value as a positive contributor to the health of the Hawai‘i economy and Hawai‘i’s communities.”

“The issues facing Hawai‘i tourism are intractable but not unsolvable,” the authors concluded. “The time has come to acknowledge these issues before they permanently affect Hawai‘i’s global appeal and the quality of life in the islands.”

“Tourism’s Tipping Point” is part of Civil Beat’s year-long series, “Hawaii’s Changing Economy.” That work is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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