To obtain a tourist visa for the island nation of Palau, visitors must sign a pledge, written by Palau children, to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.” They also have to pay a $100 “green fee” to support environmental conservation in the archipelago.

Will local business leaders embrace something similar for Hawaii?

Officials from the local arm of the nonprofit environmental organization Conservation International are scheduled to present their research on green fees Thursday at the Hawaii Executive Conference, a four-day event at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Big Island.

Visitors enjoy Lanikai Beach. LANIKAI TRAFFIC. 2 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Increasing numbers of visitors, including crowds like these on Lanikai Beach, raise questions about the environmental costs of tourism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Conservation International’s sweeping report catalogues efforts around the world to offset the negative side effects of tourism in environmentally and culturally fragile tourist destinations like Palau, the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, Bhutan and Bali.

While the report is merely a starting point for discussion, it’s notable that the authors have been invited to present their findings at a conference of business executives sponsored by large corporations like Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Bank of Hawaii — hardly enterprises known to clamor for imposing more fees or taxes on the visitor industry.

“I think that the concern of any business is going to be, ‘Is this another fund that ultimately gets raided?’” said Ann Botticelli, a spokeswoman for Hawaiian Airlines.

But Botticelli said the report is a welcome launchpad for a robust discussion among Hawaii residents as well as stakeholders in business, government and conservation.

“If tourism is our economic engine today and for the near future, then we need to take care of the environment,” she said. “It’s crucial to our economy and also to the sustainability of our lifestyle.”

The report comes amid growing concerns about Hawaii’s ability to host increasing numbers of tourists, which are expected to top 10 million this year. It underscores that the problem of overtourism isn’t unique to Hawaii. And it shows some of the solutions other locales have adopted.

Popular tourist destinations worldwide are increasingly asking visitors to pay for the so-called 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.

Popular trails like the hike to the Lanikai pillboxes are becoming victims of their own popularity. Nicole Glass

Beach cleanups, watershed restoration, reforestation, coral reef conservation and the cost of implementing solar and LED energy systems are among the initiatives that more than a dozen international travel hotspots are now funding through fees collected from tourists.

Visitors Are Supportive

Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, established a new eco-tax on tourists in 2016 to finance the hidden costs of tourism.

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

The governments of Iceland and New Zealand are now preparing to impose new taxes that finance wilderness conservation and improve infrastructure as visitors, lured by remote waterfalls and alpine vistas, increasingly tread on sensitive, wild lands.

Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park instituted a one-time entry fee for visitors in 1993. Thirteen years later, tourists were asked for their perception of the $100 fee, which shifts the burden to manage this delicate ecosystem from residents to tourists.

According to the analysis by researchers at Conservation International’s Ecuadorian arm and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 75% of Ecuadorian tourists and about 65% of foreign tourists reported that they found the entrance fee to be a good value.

The analysis found that educating tourists about such fees and the use of the funds increases their willingness to pay.

Conservation International estimates that a mandatory fee of about $38.50 per visitor would be enough to cover what it describes as unfunded conservation liabilities in Hawaii.

“They were willing to pay a higher fee because they really saw the visible impact of their contribution,” said Emelia von Saltza, an environmental economist and a program manager at Conservation International in Hawaii.

The fee was considered to be too high by 20% of Ecuadorians and 18% of foreigners, and a smaller percentage said it was too low.

Another study published in 2015 analyzed survey responses from 252 tourists who had just completed a tour of the Galapagos. It found that, on average, tourists were willing to pay 2.5 times more money for a tour that takes protective measures against the risk of invasive species.

The finding highlights a consensus among economists and academics that visitors are generally willing to pay more money to access unique destinations in a manner that helps to preserve them.

Conservation International, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, has experience working with industry partners to create practical solutions to environmental problems. A partnership with United Airlines, for instance, allows passengers to purchase carbon dioxide offsets to mitigate the environmental side effects of their flights.

The organization estimates Hawaii needs at least $886 million to adequately care for its environment, but receives only about $535 million from state and federal taxpayers and private funding. The organization estimates Hawaii needs another $358 million annually to take care of its ecosystems and bio-cultural resources.

Conservation International estimates that a mandatory fee of about $38.50 per visitor would be enough to cover what it describes as unfunded conservation liabilities. The challenge is figuring out exactly how to implement such a fee.

Is It Legal To Single Out Tourists?

Not the least of the obstacles are legal ones.

As the report points out, federal laws and the U.S. Constitution limit what state and local governments can do to impose fees on visitors. While taxes on things like hotel rooms and rental cars are generally OK, the taxes must be applied to everyone, including locals, not just visitors.

And while private enterprises can offer discounts like kamaaina rates for locals, governments generally can’t single out visitors for higher fees and taxes. Although there are exceptions — among the most commonly noted is lower tuition rates for in-state students at public universities — Conservation International notes the general challenge.

“The most important thing is making sure that this doesn’t get killed before it gets a chance to be considered as a serious solution,” said Jack Kittinger, a senior director at Conservation International in Hawaii.

Emelia von Saltza, an environmental economist and a program manager at Conservation International in Hawaii, said tourists are often willing to pay extra to support conservation in locales they are visiting. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

“We have 10 years until we are literally cooked and Hawaii will not meet the climate change target,” he said. “We need half a billion dollars every year to close the gap in order to make sure that the nature that supports us is here. Or else we’re going to run out of all these ecosystems that we depend on.”

The more simple solutions focus on fees for goods and services typically used by tourists, specifically hotel rooms and rental cars. This could take the form of new fees, the report posits, which would tack on additional costs to the substantial taxes visitor already pay.

Or the government could “green” existing taxes, like the 10.25% hotel room tax, by steering more money from it to conservation efforts.

Alternatively, Hawaii could seek to impose a new fee more like those used in places like Palau and New Zealand, the report says. Under one scenario, an electronic platform potentially could both collect fees and provide information to visitors through a cell phone app.

“Is it all the tourists’ fault that we’re not taking care of our natural resources?” — John Morgan, president of Kualoa Ranch

But Conservation International cautions, “At this point, it is unclear how an electronic assessment tool would operate in a mandatory green fee scenario.”

Other options include electronic recreation permits analogous to hunting and fishing licenses that would have to be bought by visitors to use trails, beaches and other natural resources. But, again, the report acknowledges more legal research would need to be done to determine the extent to which such fees could be imposed.

Voluntary green fees are another option, the report says.

Beyond the idea of tax-like fees, the report outlines mechanisms like “green bonds: essentially government-issued securities used to pay for big-ticket projects that could be paid off over time. Finally, there’s the option of raising revenue through a tax on carbon emissions.

Steering existing tax revenue toward conservation might be the easiest sell to some business executives.

“The idea of, ‘Let’s add an additional tax for the tourists because we don’t have the will to use the tax that we’re already collecting for conservation,’ is not something I would rush to support,” said John Morgan, president of the 4,000-acre private nature reserve Kualoa Ranch.

“I’m leery of that because there’s tons of money that tourists are paying right now,” he said.

Morgan said he would back a measure to reallocate funds already levied on visitors through sources such as the general excise tax or the transient accommodations tax added to the daily cost of lodging.

But he’s not inclined to champion a new tax on tourists.

“Is it all the tourists’ fault that we’re not taking care of our natural resources?” he said. “I don’t know enough about why the DLNR is underfunded, but there’s a lot of people in a big square building that make those choices.”

“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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