Despite plenty of anecdotal evidence about hordes of tourists bringing big bucks – along with traffic and congestion – to Windward Oahu, the industry’s costs and benefits have been hard to quantify.

Now, researchers at the University of Hawaii are gathering hard data on some elusive questions about visitors to Kailua, Lanikai and Waimanalo.

These include baseline numbers on visitors to the area, their impact on things like infrastructure and beaches and residents’ perceptions of the large numbers of visitors.

Lanikai Cyclists along Mokulua Drive with pedestrians.
Although the influx of tourists has brought money to local businesses, neighborhoods like Lanikai have seen a dramatic increase in traffic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The overarching goal is to assess the overall social, economic and resource impacts, said Dolan Eversole, a researcher with UH’s Sea Grant College Program who is the study’s lead investigator.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do: look at the costs and benefits of visitors,” he said. The project is being funded by Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.

Faculty from UH’s School of Travel Industry Management are playing a major part in the effort, which involves sending out thousands of surveys to residents and conducting interviews with hundreds more visitors and residents at popular Windward beaches and shopping areas.

Thousands of area residents started receiving the surveys last week. The researchers sent questionnaires to about 4,500 Kailua residents and 1,900 in Waimanalo. They include questions that let people weigh in on numerous issues, like the extent to which tourism has created good-paying jobs, improved the standard of living on one hand and increased traffic and housing costs on the other.

Visitors are asked questions about topics like how they heard about Kailua, how they traveled there, how much money they spent and where they stayed while in the area.

Kailua Beach with cyclist headed towards Lanikai.
Once-quiet Kailua Beach has grown into a popular tourist destination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dan Spencer, a UH travel industry professor with a specialty in survey research and data analytics, said the five surveys being conducted for the project are the most he’s done for a single study.

“We’re up to our eyeballs” in material, he said.

The Windward communities have seen dramatic increases in tourists in recent years, a trend that has stimulated economic growth in Kailua’s town as well as a backlash from many residents who say government officials have not done enough to manage the growth.

Although property owners have benefitted from renting properties to vacationers and Kailua town has grown into a bustling commercial center of trendy boutiques, many residents have said they feel overwhelmed by the rapid changes to the community.

Spencer said the study’s results are expected by the end of the year.

“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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