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More than 200 Kailua residents packed a school auditorium at the base of the Pali Highway on Wednesday to talk about an issue that has grabbed people’s attention like no other: tourism and its overwhelming effect on Kailua.
In what became a mixture of a sentimental journey into people’s memories of a less-crowded past in a once-sleepy town and a tentative examination of how the future could be better shaped, Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton and a panel of community leaders reminisced about the good old days and pondered ways to restrain the tourist onslaught that Kailua residents say is engulfing them.
They talked about gating off tourist sites, redirecting tourists elsewhere or charging them money to offset the costs they incur.
They also frankly discussed their perception that the state and city governments have failed to address the new challenges created by the growing strains of tourism as hordes of people trample scenic spots and cultural sites.
In a series of on-the-spot cellphone polls about their views on tourism and Kailua, participants gave the situation grim reviews. Asked if they believed Kailua was being managed primarily for the benefit of tourists, 85 percent said yes. About 85 percent said they thought vacation rentals had not provided “a net benefit” to Kailua. And 74 percent said they believed the changes in Kailua had been bad, not good.
About 13 percent said they intended to move away.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, who represents District 25, which stretches from Portlock to Kailua, set the stage for the discussion by describing how tourism in Hawaii has increased year over year — from 500,000 visitors a year in the 1960s, to 8 million in 2005, to 10 million this year, with the likelihood of 12 million in 2020. Each year, an increasing number make the trek over the Pali to visit Kailua, a town that was not designed to accommodate them.
“There’s no question that tourism has brought a lot of economic benefits to Hawaii but it has also brought a tremendous amount of costs and there’s a question about whether the economic benefits are creating enough value for the costs,” Thielen said.
“You have this clash with the onslaught of the world that found Hawaii and want to come here and access it,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, whose district includes Kailua and Kaneohe, recalling that it was easier to welcome tourists when there were fewer of them.
“I never felt that we didn’t like the tourists,” Keohokalole said. “Only recently, and it’s because we are at this critical mass. It’s everywhere. It’s no longer the aloha that comes out. It’s hard … They just keep coming.”
Danny Casler, who founded the My Kailua Facebook page, recalled that in his Kalaheo childhood, when he hiked Maunawili Falls, neighbors at the trailhead would invite people to their homes to shower off the mud. That never happens now, he said.
“At some point, one-, two-, three-, five-thousand, you are over it,” he said.
The view that tourism has overwhelmed Kailua was a universal refrain.
“I keep feeling how crowded it is, how crowded it is on the windward side,” said Keohokalole.
“I can’t get a hamburger at Teddy’s on a Saturday with my kids because I will have to stand in a line for an hour and they will go nuts,” he said.
Terrence George, president and chief executive officer of the Harold K. L. Castle Foundation, a nonprofit closely tied to Kailua’s history, suggested that Hawaii should consider getting tourists to pay for parking or establish ways to get them to pay for entry to tourist destinations, perhaps through apps on smartphones that could charge people for entry.
“There are places that charge ‘green fees’ that actually generate tons of income that we can plow back into paying for the damage that tourists do, and for improving our own civic life together,” George said.
Thielen said that she would be worried about starting to gate off access to sites when one of the special features of Hawaii has been the early legal precedents that created universal access to things like beaches and trails.
Casler liked the idea of charging people to access the resources, but later worried aloud that it could turn “residential communities into profit centers.”
The panelists expressed a universal view that the city and state governments have failed to rise to the challenge of managing tourism growth. Several said the problem is not that tourism is being overly managed, but that it is being mismanaged.
Thielen said there is a perception that the city isn’t paying attention to what’s going on outside of Honolulu. “We’re not getting the reaction, not getting the infrastructure upgrades for this volume of people, not getting the legislation, not getting the enforcement … It’s just left to happen.”
George said “the big elephant in the room” is the new law governing vacation rentals and, he said, “we need it to be enforced.”
Keohokalole said he believed the state and city governments were structured for a centralized 1950s-style economic system that no longer exists.
“A lot of the ways our state and county agencies operate is just antiquated,” he said, adding they are ill-equipped to address the complexity of new problems and the issues they create in local communities.
But he said that ongoing discussions over the issues will have some effect.
“I have seen how the community’s desire for the government to do something has moved the needle” on other issues in the past, he said. “This is going to percolate back up to the top.”
The panelists drew warm, appreciative chuckles when they talked about the way things used to be, back in the day.
Keohokalole waxed nostalgic about stopping by Andy’s Drive Inn for a short stack; George recalled how there was a time he could walk in at Boots and Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen and just slide into a booth; Casler talked about quick errands at Longs and Holiday Mart that turned into long excursions because there were so many friends to greet along the way.
When he goes there now, those places are filled with strangers, he said.
“Now I just like getting out of there,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”
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