Eric Stinton: Welcome To Hawaii. Now Pay Up - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


It’s been a while since I was the type of guy to go to a club, but know what’s something I don’t remember? The cover charge.

It was a totally forgettable transaction, simply an established and expected part of the deal: if you want to go somewhere that a lot of other people also want to go, you have to pony up just to get inside. If you don’t want to pay, you can go somewhere else.

Cover charges surely drive some customers away sometimes, and there is certainly a threshold of reasonability — nobody will pay $500 at the door, for example. But if the destination can justify the cost, people will pay.

You’ve probably gathered that this is about tourism.

According to a recent Hawaii Tourism Authority survey, 66% of people agreed that Hawaii “is run for tourists at the expense of locals.”

It’s hard not to feel this way. It is the nature of tourism to hollow out communities. I’ve seen this firsthand growing up in Kailua and watching it transform over the years from a mostly residential community to one dominated by tour buses, boutiques, bars and restaurants, most of which cater to tourists.

Kailua is not unique. Take a look at the history of any tourist destination on the planet and you’ll find a similar pattern: as time goes on, more of the total space and functionality of the place is dedicated to accommodating tourists, and less for residents. The relationship is by nature adversarial, especially when space is at a premium, like it is on an island.

It may sound harsh, but nobody likes tourists. Not even tourists like tourists. Ask anyone who has visited the islands where their favorite spots are and you’ll almost certainly hear a comparative complaint about one place or another being “too touristy.”

Visitors used to flock to Kailua to escape the “tourist trap” of Waikiki. Soon Kailua will have too many tourists for the tourists to bear, and they’ll spill over to the next place until the cycle repeats.

This is nothing new. In an article titled “Modern Tourism” in an 1848 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a writer laments that, despite the incredible benefits of the railroad and steamboat, “they have afflicted our generation with one desperate evil; they have covered Europe with tourists.” In 1871, the English clergyman Francis Kilvert wrote in his journal that “of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist.” Contempt is a fundamental component of the tourism industry.

And the industry is enormous. In 2019, tourism was estimated to account for 10.6% of the world’s jobs and 10.4% of the global GDP. Tourism is a powerful machine, perhaps too big to ever be replaced here.

If that’s our fate, then the least we can do is make that machine work for us, instead of operating our local economy like a multi-billion dollar server who doles out fake smiles hoping for a nice tip. An easy way to do that is to simply charge visitors an entry fee.

“But visitor numbers will sharply decline,” hotel CEOs will say through grinding teeth. “Hawaii’s economy will be decimated!”

This is nonsense. The COVID-19 test that is currently required to visit Hawaii is not just an additional one-time cost; it also takes time, intrusively so. Yet tourists are still arriving all the same. A $20 arrival fee is cheaper, faster and more painless than a COVID test.

Kailua Beach with cyclist headed towards Lanikai.
Kailua Beach is a popular spot for tourists. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A similar logic was used to defend the HTA’s wasteful multi-million dollar bribe to host the Pro Bowl here. But when the Pro Bowl went elsewhere for a few years, we were able to compare the visitor arrival data. Lo and behold, there was no meaningful drop in overall tourism.

You don’t need precise economic data to confirm what your gut tells you: if a family of five has saved thousands of dollars for a Hawaii vacation, an extra $100 will not drive them away. Hawaii’s image and reputation as a world-renowned vacation destination is a lot more resilient than a $20 entry fee.

You can also expect opponents to play the Patriot Card and talk about how un-American it is to charge our fellow countrymen just to get in the door. But Hawaii is different — spend enough time around military folks and you’ll quickly hear them talk about how things are “back in America.”

More to the point, Hawaii is not physically part of America. It’s why the UFC refuses to host an event here without a $6 million subsidy, something they only ask of other countries. Geography does not care about political borders.

Had we collected $20 from the 10.4 million visitors that came in 2019, we would have had a lot of money to fix potholes or provide services for the homeless.

The final rebuttal is that tourists already benefit residents by spending their money here, which provides jobs. The problem with that argument, though, is that most of those jobs suck. I know this because I’ve had several of them: in a hotel, in retail, and in the food industry. Not only do they typically pay low wages, they also require being around tourists all day.

The preponderance of low-wage jobs exacerbates the hollowing out process of affected communities. On top of that socio-economic damage, there’s real environmental and ecological damage that tourism causes. Whether it’s litter, stepping on coral reefs or harassing monk seals, it’s impossible for nature to survive 10 million annual visitors unscathed, even if most tourists try to be mindful of those things — and I think most do. But even if every single tourist that came to Hawaii was perfectly respectful of nature, the very infrastructure of tourism — planes, cars and general consumption — is incredibly pollutive.

That’s why it’s sensible for the entry fee to be used for conservation purposes. A “green fee” could be used to conserve and protect our scarce and invaluable natural resources. Coincidentally, the tourism industry stands to gain from such efforts. Allowing our beaches and trails to get overwhelmed by human activity will do far more long-term damage to our economy than a measly cover charge.

But an entry fee could also be used for other means of community investment. Had we collected $20 from the 10.4 million visitors that came in 2019, we would have had a lot of money to fix potholes or provide services for the homeless.

If we don’t use that money for conservation, however, I propose we distribute it to hourly wage earners in the tourism industry. They’re the ones taking care of tourists in the most immediate way, and their pay is the same no matter how much money tourism brings in.

By my count, that would result in approximately $1,000 extra per worker per year — not a life-changer, but enough to add up meaningfully over time. If we do this on top of raising the minimum wage, that will go a long way to making tourism more beneficial for residents.

Whatever the allocation we end up choosing, charging visitors is an easy step we can take to make tourism work for locals, and not just the other way around.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

We already impose significant taxes on tourists; tourism is the primary source of revenue for the state, generating $2 billion in taxes in 2019, and much more in industries ancillary to tourism.The problem is that these taxes don't do enough to help locals. Tax revenue is filtered through layers upon layers of government waste. They go to homeless programs that do nothing. They're wasted on government programs that are years behind schedule and millions over budget.Taxation won't be a solution without first solving fundamental problems of our goverment.

FutureNihon · 1 month ago

Wouldn't a "green fee" simply make our economy more dependent on tourism?I wonder if people are really ready for that.

pull · 1 month ago

People here don't like tourists because people here can't afford to buy a home, and the rent they pay keeps them from saving for the future.  That's the real issue.  Charging more taxes on tourists is not going to change that dynamic.  What is really needed is some innovative solutions to empower local people to buy homes here.  Local people are the long term contributors to the economy.If local people can invest in homes and still have some of their hard-earned income left over, the other problems will take care of themselves.  The state wouldn't have to so aggressively chase tourism dollars to fund public goods and services.  

stinky · 1 month ago

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