Thirty years ago this month, when Hawaii marked its 30th anniversary as a state, the population was 1.1 million. That same year six times that many people visited the islands.

Thirty years later, as Hawaii reaches its 60th year as a member of the union this Friday, its population is now 1.4 million. Our visitor count is projected to surpass 10 million by the end of 2019, or roughly 10 tourists for every resident.

The trend line is obvious and alarming. Visitors are also spending less, meaning the state and counties have less tax revenue to spend on infrastructure to ensure Hawaii remains an attractive destination.

The impact from the tourism overload is experienced by nearly everyone, especially on crowded Oahu: traffic jams on the H-1, lines of folks climbing Diamond Head, long queues at the airport, short-term rentals cluttering neighborhoods like Kailua and Sunset Beach, parking problems from Laniakea to Lanikai and ocean-goers drowning in Hanauma Bay and Waikiki.

Shores of Lanikai Beach with visitors enjoying the azure blue waters and powdered sand. 2 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

How much is too many? Visitors at Lanikai Beach.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Not only is the quality of life diminished for residents, the visitor experience is also less positive. We can’t stop people from getting on jets to fly and vacation here. But something needs to be done.

As gloomy as the forecast for more tourists may be, several crucial developments in the year 2019 point to a possible way forward.

The tipping point, as we call our series on the future of the vacation industry, can be transformed into a turning point that preserves our vital economic pipeline but makes certain our sense of aloha doesn’t catch the next plane out of here.

The first shift is the dramatic consequence of Bill 89. Honolulu’s new law cracking down on illicit short-term rentals is already showing results.

Owners are faced with choosing whether to lease, sell or leave vacant rental units or risk hefty fines. And would-be tourists have to accept that there will be far fewer accommodations to choose from with companies like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway.

It took decades for Honolulu’s mayor and City Council to agree to legislation like Bill 89. The other three counties have similarly struggled to craft their own controls on the proliferation of short-term vacation homes.

Bill 89 represents a significant shift in how Oahu accommodates its visitors, and how it provides affordable housing to locals. The law may need to be amended as time evolves — for example, adjusting the number of short-term rentals allowed in the nine zones that comprise the island. And the law is already being challenged in the courts.

But there is no reverting to the status quo.

The second shift is that state and county officials and visitor industry executives are recognizing that, while Hawaii can’t simply close for business like Hanauma Bay does every Tuesday, it can put controls on overrun sites like Haena State Park on Kauai. They might include visitor caps to specific destinations, new or higher entrance fees and increased law enforcement to ensure that the aina is not trashed.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is using geographic data analysis to more precisely pin down where tourists go and, in a noninvasive manner, where they are from. It can lead to better management of these sites.

What is not helpful, however, is for an HTA contractor, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, to promote a social media campaign with the hashtag #lethawaiihappen. Letting Hawaii “happen” has led to conditions such as the overrunning of trails and lost hikers.

Which leads to a third shift: the need to educate visitors on health and safety.

Civil Beat ran a series three years ago titled “Dying for Vacation” that — sadly — captured the harsh reality that a lot of arrivals don’t return home. The biggest reason is drowning; Hawaii has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest rate of visitor drowning in the nation.

That’s why officials are stressing ocean safety and trying to prevent snorkeling deaths.

“Health officials and emergency responders said they are optimistic that additional lifeguards, working expanded and reconfigured hours, along with new equipment and better public outreach will reduce ocean-related injuries and deaths,” Civil Beat reported last month. “They are also hopeful that ongoing studies will help determine why snorkeling is such a perilous activity for visitors.”

Controlling tourism is essential to a livable future for the islands. Visitors are not going to stop coming, nor should we want that to happen.

But with carriers like Southwest Airlines launching airfare wars and driving desire for more people to travel to Hawaii, the multiple challenges that come with increasing numbers of visitors will only grow more dire.

Before you go . . .

Our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.

Whether you’ve valued our in-depth, fact-based journalism for 10 years or 10 days, now is the time we need you the most. Please consider supporting our newsroom by making a tax deductible gift.

About the Author