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

A record-setting 10.2 million tourists are expected to visit Hawaii this year. What’s the full cost of welcoming them?

According to a new academic study, “Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism,” even the best attempts at answering this question are informed by inaccurate, incomplete and otherwise misleading data.

The impact of global tourism on local economies remains largely unknown, and this knowledge gap has allowed poor management to fester, according to the study authored by EplerWood International, Cornell University and the Travel Foundation.

Overtourism is identified in the March 2019 study as a symptom of this underlying problem. To fix it requires a paradigm shift.

By 2030, there are expected to be 1.8 billion global tourist arrivals. Pictured clockwise  are destinations that have made changes toward better management: the Galapagos Islands, Palau, Easter Island, San Francisco, New Zealand, Amsterdam and Barcelona. April Estrellon

“The famous case is Mallorca, where they were down to $30 per night for a hotel in the ‘70s because it was a very overcrowded tourist destination,” said Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.

“And I attended a meeting in the Canary Islands where the mayor of Mallorca announced that they were going to tear down hotels and the whole audience stood up and cheered. And, in fact, they did it.” 

Mallorca has since recouped high-value tourism on the island in part by shuttering hotels, and also by establishing a new eco-tax on tourists in 2016 that is funneled into a fund to pay the hidden costs of tourism. Those include managing and upgrading systems for water use, waste disposal, land use, air and carbon emissions, transportation, community values and cultural heritage. 

The tax has raised more than $100 million in three years. 

“You can drive a destination over a cliff,” Epler Wood said. “But the way to reinsert value is to properly account for tourism’s costs and then strategically look at reinvestment.”

Can Tourism Pay Its Own Way?

While figures proclaiming the number of visitor arrivals or tourism jobs have become common yardsticks for assessing the health of a local tourism industry, the study finds that destination managers often ignore other vital metrics.

Those include each individual traveler’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, wear and tear on local infrastructure, threats to biodiversity and demand for land and housing.

Failure to confront these hidden costs is starting to degrade the customs, culture, monuments, natural resources and other assets that make these destinations so appealing to visit in the first place.

In Barcelona, visitors swarm beaches and other beloved attractions, transforming places long loved by residents into virtual no-go zones for locals. Residents are being driven out of Venice as 30 million annual tourists bombard the Italian city, stampeding streets, sidewalks and canals and skyrocketing the price of rent. Poorly behaving tourists on Easter Island have made a mockery of the island’s indigenous culture, climbing on giant moai statues and posing with them for nose-picking photos

To turn this scenario on its head, governments and the travel industry must reinvest a higher percentage of tourism revenues into the destination, the study concludes. The first step toward achieving this requires destination managers to uncover the full cost of hosting each individual visitor. Only then can stakeholders figure out how to pay for those costs.

When such costs go ignored, the study finds that residents are forced to foot the bill. Or worse, the bill doesn’t get paid at all.

The idea is to make tourism pay its own way to the benefit of everyone.

To achieve this, the “Invisible Burden” study suggests local governments create a global trust or revolving fund account with apolitical leaders to finance the preservation of destination assets.

Many tourism hubs are stuck in crisis management, experimenting with steepened entry fees, daily visitor caps and new marketing philosophies.

Governments can fill the account with revenues from new fees, such as eco-taxes, which can be used to ensure that tourism generates green infrastructure or other necessary investments to perpetuate the health and longevity of the destination and its residents.

Iceland and New Zealand have already taken steps toward funding infrastructure improvements to the benefit of locals, visitors and the future of the tourism industry by approving new taxes that finance wilderness conservation and improve infrastructure.

In many cases, officials don’t need to institute new fees — they simply must re-evaluate how they’re spending dollars from existing tourism taxes. Often this means shifting dollars away from marketing a destination in favor of funding the maintenance of its natural resources, social and cultural capital, energy systems, wastewater management and transportation networks.

Overcrowded attractions can benefit from these revenues by implementing new systems that encourage travelers to visit during non-peak hours, make a donation toward conservation of the site, pledge to stay in eco-friendly lodging or agree to tour the property with a licensed guide.

“The same standardized piece of software that all airlines and hotels use to manage demand and pricing needs to be used by the world that manages the Parthenon and the Uffizi and the Versailles and parks in Hawaii,” Epler Wood said. “These sites will never be able to handle unlimited growth, so these reservation systems will have to be set up in a way that benefits the monument or site and allows for a range of visitors to come. But not all at once.”

And the risk of doing nothing?

“It will devalue Hawaii,” said Epler Wood, who credits her family’s Hawaii roots, dating to an era when Waikiki boasted just two hotels, with inspiring her career in sustainable tourism development. “If sites become overcrowded, we know by way of 30 or 40 years of tourism demand research that the value of those sites will go down.”

Charged with marketing Hawaii to the world, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is already starting to make this paradigm shift. In fiscal year 2020, HTA plans to funnel about $20 million of its $86.7 million budget into programs that promote safety, protect natural resources and perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture.

Stuck In Crisis Management

The “Invisible Burden” study maps out an aspirational plan for destinations grappling with a bloated tourism market. But most destinations have a long way to go to achieve such sophisticated management. 

In reality, many tourism hubs are stuck in crisis management, experimenting with steepened entry fees, daily visitor caps and new marketing philosophies — and hoping something sticks, experts say. 

“How do we create a situation where tourism isn’t happening to us?” asks Jonathon Day, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University. “I don’t think there are any simple answers, partly because in some ways no one entity is in charge of tourism.

“Most of the issues require the whole of government and the whole of community to come together, from town planners to the people who design the roads — and that usually doesn’t happen.” 

Protesters on Molokai stopped a 145-foot passenger yacht in 2011 from docking on Molokai over concerns that local community members had not been given a voice in the decision to allow regularly scheduled trips to the rural island. Catherine Cluett

From Tolls To A ‘Loo With A View’

Vancouver, British Columbia, is attempting to relieve crowds by using price drops and clever marketing to encourage tourism during the shoulder seasons. 

The Netherlands Tourism Board has completely stopped promoting the overcrowded city of Amsterdam as a tourist destination. Amsterdam also recently instituted a ban on new tourist shops in the city center.

In California, lawmakers are testing a new toll and advanced reservation system for travelers who wish to drive down San Francisco’s famously crooked Lombard Street. Elsewhere in the state, Point Lobos is poised to become the first California state park to restrict visitor access during the high season.

Easter Island now limits visitor travel to a maximum period of 30 days.

In New Zealand, a four-day wilderness trek called the Milford Track recently became so popular that it’s lost the allure of solitude in nature. So the country’s Department of Conservation imposed a new 40-person maximum on the number of hikers permitted to start the trek each day. This measure has helped alleviate overcrowding and restored a sense of isolation and serene wildness to the trekking experience.

Other locales are cracking down on the influx of travelers by limiting transportation options and beefing up enforcement.

In the Galapagos Islands, there are strict ship capacity and landing limits. Passengers aboard those ships who wish to visit protected areas must travel with a naturalist guide. They’re not allowed to bring any food off the ship. Flash photography of wildlife is prohibited. Drones are forbidden. And while there are many Galapagos islands to visit, more than 100 islands and islets in the chain remain off-limits to tourists.

But getting a handle on tourism is not just about imposing price hikes, limits and restrictions. Another method of addressing overtourism involves rethinking the kinds of things people might like to do when they arrive, according to Day.

“People have this belief that they have the right to travel anywhere and do anything.” — Purdue University professor Jonathon Day

Some tourist-packed cities are using creative marketing and travel packages to direct tourists to less-heralded — and less crowded — activities. Others are building new tourist attractions

At Australia’s Mooloolaba Beach, the public restroom facility — Loo With A View — doubles as an attraction, with its outlook over an ocean esplanade. Other Australian beach towns are following suit, erecting public toilets that are architecturally interesting or offer stunning views, such as this one shaped like an indigenous wicker basket.

No one is going to visit Australia to tour a public toilet. But even a minor diversion can help diffuse crowds that detract from the visitor experience at major attractions.

A Pledge For Good Behavior

Travelers must also contribute to the preservation of the world’s most sought-after places — and not only in the form of a tourism tax, according to several experts.

In 2018, international tourism arrivals reached a record-setting 1.4 billion. By 2030, that number is expected to increase by nearly 29 percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Refined management can help destinations absorb the growing number of travelers, said Day, who is behind an online pledge to travel according to The Travel Care Code. But it will also require increased traveler awareness. 

“People have this belief that they have the right to travel anywhere and do anything,” Day said. “We sort of tie it into our freedoms. But that’s a mindset that we might need to revisit because what people don’t think about is that what they’re really doing is going into someone’s house, going into someone’s community.

“Just as I wouldn’t go to your house and mess the place up, we’ve got this trade-off between my freedom to do whatever I want and my responsibility to be a good guest — and I think that’s coming to a head at this moment.”

In 2017, Palau became the first nation to issue visas exclusively to tourists who sign an eco-pledge, promising to act in an environmentally responsible fashion while visiting the fragile destination. The pledge came as a response to a huge surge in tourism prompted by new air travel routes that threatened to topple the tiny Micronesian island nation’s infrastructure, including its drinking water and sanitation systems.

The Palau Pledge:

Children of Palau,

I take this Pledge,

To preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.

I vow to tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.

I shall not take what is not given.

I shall not harm what does not harm me.

The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away

The Big Island has the Pono Pledge, which asks visitors to promise that they will not trespass nor defy death for a breathtaking photo. In June, Kauai residents began circulating the Aloha Pledge, a similar effort to voluntarily compel visitors to tread lightly on the island’s natural resources and respect its host culture.

A pledge in Big Sur, California, calls on tourists to refrain from the kind of bad behavior that damages the natural environment and disturbs residents.

“These are not contracts,” Day said. “But they are a good way to remind people that, ‘Hey, you’re coming to my house.’”

Combating overtourism also requires local governments to rethink how it measures success in tourism, Day said.

“You have to change the metrics,” he said. “The politician who says tourism is good because it increased 5% needs to be thinking about the bigger picture. Because maybe you don’t want more visitors — you want higher yield visitors. You want visitors that are spending more money.”

“That takes a pretty brave politician because it’s easy to see growth in numbers and take it as success,” Day added. “It’s harder to get the message across that it’s not about the number, it’s about the impact.”

Can You Create Sustainable Hotels?

Bjorn Hanson, a hotel industry consultant in New York, said many hotel owners and operators have crafted new policies and practices as direct responses to overtourism and the desire to contain tourism’s damage to the natural environment. 

The lodging industry is often inclined to self-regulate this way, implementing policies to purchase more local goods or cut down on single-use plastics, Hanson said. The thinking, he said, is that by becoming part of the solution, the hospitality industry may avoid a situation where lawmakers begin to impose more restrictive limitations on the industry. 

“People used to think tourism was a non-polluting segment of the economy and now it’s the opposite,” Hanson said. “Today there are more travelers and they are consuming more energy resources and therefore producing more pollution.”

Visitors at Waikiki Beach near the Kapahulu groin.
Decades of research on tourism demand show that tourism destinations become devalued as they grow overcrowded and can start losing high paying visitors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

In Waikiki, The Modern Honolulu uses LED light bulbs and eco-friendly cleaning products. The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club has reef-friendly sunscreen dispensers, free bicycle rentals and a ban on plastic straws, while its restaurant Mahina & Sun’s serves local, sustainably caught and farmed fish and uses compostable take-away food containers. 

Guests of Alohilani Resort can plant native trees as a means to encourage rare birds and other indigenous species to thrive. Equus Hotel offers in-room recycling. 

Oahu resorts including Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa and The Kahala Hotel & Resort offer guests complimentary shuttle service to popular shopping destinations, beaches and attractions, a measure that helps alleviate traffic. 

However sincere, Hanson said these strategies are limited by the way they are carefully implemented so as not to put guests at an inconvenience.

“The fact remains that people don’t want to sleep on linens that haven’t been changed since the last guests checked out,” said Hanson, who previously worked part-time in Honolulu as the managing partner of hospitality consulting for the United States at Price Waterhouse Cooper. “People don’t want to use utensils that haven’t been washed to sanitation standards in a restaurant.”

“If you’re the general manager of the hotel sitting in your office thinking, ‘What am I going to do today to address this?,’ the list is pretty short,” he added. “We’re not going to save the world by not having plastic straws.” 

Where there has been some movement, Hanson said, is in the increasing eco-friendliness of the typical hotel bathroom. 

At many resorts, the bathtub/shower combination has been replaced with a walk-in shower, which uses less water and less sanitizing cleaner. The little shampoo and conditioner bottles that travelers have been stowing away in their luggage for generations are increasingly being replaced by bulk dispensers.

“Some people miss that they don’t get to take the shampoo and the body lotion home with them,” Hanson said. “But whereas a decade ago it would have been viewed as something being done by the hotel to save money, now there’s more awareness of the environmental implications and people are finding the dispenser on the wall to be acceptable.” 

Much of this progress is inspired by changing consumer tastes, Hanson said. Yet some hotel groups appear more interested in marketing to appeal to the mores of the modern eco-conscious traveler than actually reducing its environmental impact.

“One of the major international hotel companies engaged me for a project and the premise was, ‘Our environmental policies are awful. Can you help us market them better than we do?’” Hanson explained. “It wasn’t, ‘How do we make them good?’ It was, ‘How do we not look as bad as we do.’”

“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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