Tourist counts are at an all-time high. But increasingly, it’s the locals who feel like they’re being shut out and paying the costs of Hawaii’s overused natural attractions.

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In the pre-internet era, Hawaii’s hidden gems were known by “locals only.” Tourists didn’t know about them and for most tourists, the Hawaii experience was the lighting of a tiki torch, siphoning mai tais at the pool and a great tan to show off when you got home.

But the internet and location-aware smartphones have changed how tourists vacation in Hawaii. The advent of internet-based social media platforms has dropped virtual pins on all our special, secret and sacred places. Every trail, every beach, every heiau. All our natural wonders are posted online and now the whole world knows exactly where they are, how to get there and how long it will take.

Today the primary reason tourists come to Hawaii is to experience our beaches, and to a lesser extent, the natural sites hidden in the mountains. And the cost to visit each one of these natural wonders is … that’s right, nothing! Except Hanauma Bay isn’t free.

But why charge for Hanauma Bay but not one penny for Waimea Bay, Waipio Valley, Makena Beach or Lanikai Beach? Furthermore, even with charging a fee, isn’t Hanauma Bay always full? So why haven’t we raised the price? A fee serves two purposes at once; raising money and curbing overcrowding.

It’s time for the government on both state and county levels to recognize that we need to manage our natural resources better, and part of that management is to identify the iconic beaches and waterfalls in Hawaii, and make them “Designated Recreation Sites.” Once established, we need to charge visitors an impact fee for their use.

There’s an admission charge at Hanauma Bay, but should we charge for access to other popular attractions?

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Pricing modulates excessive crowds visiting a designated recreation site. If there are too many people, the price is too low. Plus, pricing generates funding for the maintenance of our fragile ecosystems that has been put off for too long. And if impact fees went to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the important responsibilities of enforcement and management may be possible without going to the Legislature hat in hand for money to do their job.

Charging fees to access recreational use zones is not an oddity. The National Parks started charging fees in 1947 to pay for the upkeep, but also to regulate the number of visitors. Most states, like California, charge fees for the use of their recreational areas. Hanauma Bay instituted a fee-based system in 1996 and the system is credited with helping to rejuvenate the reef and the web of marine life that depends on it.

Charging fees to access recreational use zones is not an oddity.

These fees should not be paid by overtaxed locals — and that cannot be emphasized enough. One of the benefits of living in Hawaii, consistently one of the most expensive places in the country, must be free access to the natural beauty we are surrounded by.

Of course it’s impossible to build fences around all of our parks, trails, beaches and islets with an entry booth to collect fees. But there is technology that can do just that, and technology is the only way to level the playing field against internet giants like TripAdvisor.

It’s time — no, it’s long overdue — to start charging visitors impact fees to access our amazing Designated Recreation Sites and regenerate our fragile ecosystems for the sake of our children. The current model of growth for growth’s sake, without putting value on our natural assets, is unsustainable. People may love Hawaii, but Hawaii is being loved to death one selfie, one check-in and one social media post at a time.

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