In 2022, state leaders nearly passed a law to better safeguard Hawaii’s imperiled natural resources by raising revenues through a $40 or $50 “green fee” charged to tourists. Proponents hope to build on that momentum this year and push a visitor-impact fee through the House and Senate and onto Gov. Josh Green’s desk.

Exactly how such a fee would work – and how it might address Hawaii’s growing conservation needs as more tourists flock to an island chain that’s often dubbed the “endangered species capital of the world” – has been hotly debated for the past half-decade or so.

It’s poised to be among the top environmental proposals heading into the new legislative session, which opened Wednesday.

Hikers gather at the summit of Diamond Head lookout.
Visitors to Hawaii would have to pay a “green fee” to help offset their impact under proposals lawmakers are expected to take up again this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Carissa Cabrera, project manager with the Hawaii Green Fee coalition, said she’s encouraged by legislators who want to know more.

“This is part of the conversation now,” she said. “To me, that’s a positive indicator.”

The grassroots coalition, which consists of several dozen groups, is increasing its efforts to pass a green fee bill. The group recently hired lobbyist Melissa Pavlicek of Hawaii Public Policy Advocates to assist, and it has doubled the number of dedicated part-time staff from two to four people, Cabrera said. The approximately $30,000 to $40,000 that’s funding their efforts for up to 10 months of work mostly comes from the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, she added.

The Green Fee coalition and other supporters have reason to be somewhat optimistic about their chances in 2023. Green, who took office Dec. 5, campaigned last year on creating a “climate impact fee” of about $50 per tourist as they enter the state to raise $500 million to $600 million per year. Lawmakers have already introduced at least one new bill to establish a green fee.

Furthermore, both House and Senate leaders kicked off the new session this week proclaiming their general support for visitors having to pay more of a fair share to offset their impacts on the state’s natural resources.

But the lawmakers’ vision of what a visitor-impact fee would entail could clash with what the Green Fee coalition and other advocates say is necessary to protect the natural resources in Hawaii, which prior to the Covid-19 pandemic saw more than 10 million visitors annually.

“Our residents have been clear. Visitors should be paying for their impact on our natural resources,” Senate President Ron Kouchi declared in his opening floor speech Wednesday. “When they are a guest in our house, they should treat our home like they would hope we treat their home when we visit.”

Carissa Cabrera, project manager with the grassroots coalition Hawaii Green Fee, testifying in support of such a program in 2022
Carissa Cabrera, project manager with the grassroots coalition Hawaii Green Fee, says the group is doubling its efforts and likes its odds this year. Hawaii State House of Representatives/2022

Kouchi then went on to propose expanding the number of sites across the islands with either parking, entrance or reservation fees – similar to the fees that exist at Kee Beach on Kauai, Waianapanapa State Park on Maui, and Diamond Head State Monument on Oahu.

Expanding the pool of heavily trafficked destinations could generate between $20 million and $40 million a year in total state visitor impact fees, Kouchi said.

Green fee advocates have said such “fragmentation” would allow for certain parts of Hawaii to be cared for, but not the islands’ environment as a whole.

They point to a 2019 report by the non-governmental organization Conservation International that found Hawaii has an annual spending deficit of some $360 million in order to sufficiently steward its reefs, ocean, beaches, forests and other natural resources.

Instead of a fragmented system, they hope to see the Legislature pass a statewide fee model, run by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, that would have tourists pay in the form of an environmental license or permit – similar to hunting or fishing license — to visit state-owned lands and beaches.

That model would raise closer to the amount needed, plus it would address the legal concerns that have been raised about levying a blanket state fee on visitors from other parts of the U.S., Cabrera and others said.

Specifically, the Tax Foundation of Hawaii has previously argued that a state fee might violate the U.S. Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, which generally bars states from discriminating against the out-of-state citizens who visit there.

More than a dozen green fee programs have already been created in other countries, according to Jack Kittinger, an Oahu-based vice president at Conservation International. In Palau, for example, visitors pay $100 as part of the island nation’s “Pristine Paradise Fee” program.

Hawaii’s green fee would be the first in the U.S. using the environmental license model, advocates say. The coalition has completed a legal analysis, which it has shared with the Attorney General’s Office as it completes its own review.

There’s widespread local support for having visitors pay more to protect the islands’ natural resources, Cabrera said. Now, “the obstacle tends to be the how,” as in the details of how that gets done, she added.

Buy-In From The Tourism Industry

Another key question is how Hawaii’s influential tourism industry will react to the latest green fee bills to be introduced this session.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries did not respond to a request for comment this week. Last year, HTA testified in support of allowing DLNR to use visitor impact fees in order to better manage state-owned natural resources.

“Many of our state-owned natural resources are in desperate need of improvement due to years of deferred maintenance at these facilities,” De Fries said in his 2022 testimony. “Preserving and protecting these important resources while also investing to enhance them will ultimately result in a better experience for visitors and residents.”

What’s unclear, however, is whether HTA and other local tourism groups would embrace the novel environmental license model touted by the Hawaii Green Fee coalition. Another approach that’s been suggested is to use some of the state’s transient accommodations tax revenues instead. The tax for staying at hotels and short-term rentals is currently 10.25%.

The coalition opposes the TAT approach, however, because that would take away funding from other local needs and services instead of creating a new, dedicated revenue stream tapped from outside visitors.

Laniakea Beach Kamehameha Highway North Shore Tourists
Hundreds of thousands of visitors visit Laniakea Beach each year on Oahu’s North Shore to view the green sea turtles that swim ashore there daily. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Both Cabrera and Kittinger said it’s crucial that any Hawaii green fee be overseen by a commission of public- and private-sector representatives in order to foster community buy-in. That includes the tourism industry, they said.

Kouchi and others have said it wouldn’t be possible to collect the fee at the airport because of rules that apply to federal facilities. Kittinger said one approach would be to have visitors pay a fee online or through an app.

Last year, the main green fee measure to emerge, Senate Bill 3192, passed the Senate but stalled in the House, where the chamber’s former Labor and Tourism Committee declined to give it a hearing.

The chairman of that committee, Rep. Richard Onishi, did not respond to a request for comment this week on why he declined to hear the bill. This year, however, both the Senate and the House have new tourism chairs in Sen. Lynn DeCoite and Rep. Sean Quinlan.

Quinlan said he’s a “huge fan” of using site-specific fees to offset the impacts that tourists have on state and county natural resources. Nonetheless, he’s open to all the different ideas for how to collect a green fee and his goal is to advance all of them as far as possible this year for discussion. “To me, what I’m most concerned about is local people getting crowded out of public resources,” Quinlan said Friday.

He’s also confident that the Legislature will pass some type of fee during this year’s session.  “It’s very rare that you’ll see the Senate and the House and the governor’s office all in alignment for where we want to get to,” Quinlan said Friday.

“The devil’s in the details,” he added.

DeCoite did not respond to a request for comment.

Kittinger and other advocates, meanwhile, are anxious to get something approved before it’s too late.

“People look at this and say, ‘We know the clock is ticking,’” Kittinger said. “When a reef is gone, it’s gone. This is the go-time. This is the time to save what we have, to really amp up our stewardship and to really close the financing gap.”

State lawmakers have until Wednesday to introduce bills to be heard this session, which runs through May 4.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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