Experts say an understanding of the tourist capacity limits for local communities in the islands would help inform policies.

As Hawaii tourism rebounds three years after being effectively shut down during the pandemic, political, community and business leaders are reprising a question central to policy discussions about the state’s most prominent industry: How many tourists is too many?

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick, vice chair of the state’s House Tourism Committee, has sponsored a bill calling for a study of the state’s tourism carrying capacity.

“We know we’ve been at over capacity,” the first-term lawmaker said. “But it’s hard to say what a sustainable carrying capacity would be.”

The effort comes amid growing concerns about illegal vacation rentals, traffic, threats to sea life and environmental degradation.

“This is actually something that the community on all the islands has been asking for for a long time,” Hussey-Burdick said.

As Hawaii’s visitor numbers return to pre-pandemic levels, policymakers are raising questions about the state’s carrying capacity. Waikiki beaches last week were packed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Not everyone agrees Hawaii needs a study quantifying what they say is obvious – that the 10.4 million tourists who came to Hawaii in 2019 were too many. Some say action is needed, not more studies.

Still, there’s a consensus that carrying capacity matters. In broad terms, carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of visitors a destination can host without irreparably damaging the environment, infrastructure or community. 

Community and environmental groups point to it as a critical issue. So do hotel executives, who say tourism is at risk if the stress of hosting too many people erodes Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources and aloha spirit to a point that tourists don’t want to return or recommend Hawaii.

“The tourism spending that results from these return visits and recommendations, in turn, affects the economic viability of the destination’s visitor industry,” Hussey-Burdick’s bill says.

Dan Spencer, a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management, said an understanding of capacity limits is important in making policy decisions.

“To a certain extent, we have lost sight of it,” Spencer said. “But it’s a basic question that needs to be answered to inform the discussion we’re having about tourism management.”

Kailua Study Finds Widespread Dissatisfaction

Policymakers in Hawaii have long grappled with concerns about overtourism, especially as visitors began venturing outside the usual hot spots such as Waikiki. It’s not all about numbers.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, city officials sought to understand limits for the once-sleepy, beachside neighborhoods of Kailua and Lanikai as they became tourist meccas, recalls Dolan Eversole, the principal investigator for two studies conducted under the auspices of the UH Center for Sustainable Coastal Tourism.

One of those, titled “Socioeconomic Impacts of Tourism in Kailua and Waimānalo, Hawai’i” morphed from looking strictly at carrying capacity to studying resident sentiment toward tourism. At the time, an average of about 15,161 visitors were present on any given day in Kailua/Lanikai and residents had overwhelmingly negative feelings about that.

“It’s a basic question that needs to be answered to inform the discussion we’re having about tourism management.”

UH Professor Dan Spencer

More than 65% of residents surveyed in the second half of 2019 agreed or strongly agreed that tourism had increased traffic, increased the cost of living and “destroyed the small town feel,” according to the study. In addition, the same percentage said “vacation rentals have reduced the availability of housing for locals” and “government decisions on tourism issues tend to favor tourists over locals.”

The report got little attention when it was released in June 2020. That was during the peak of the pandemic, when Hawaii was virtually shut down to tourism, and tens of thousands of hospitality industry workers were out of work with the unemployment rate hovering around 17%. 

But much has changed since then. Hawaii hosted 9.2 million visitors in 2022, a recovery of nearly 90% of the 2019 numbers. With those numbers, resident sentiment also could be returning to 2019, Eversole said.

“We’re maybe actually going to back to where we were in 2019 now,” he said.

Tourism Tourist Visitors HCVB enjoy Kailua Bay3. 26 april 2016.
Carrying capacity varies depending on the location and type of visitor, experts say. Surrounded by homes, Kailua Beach might have trouble hosting thousands of visitors that Waikiki would have no trouble managing, they say. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Hard To Put A Number On it

A confounding aspect about determining carrying capacity is that it varies depending on factors like location and the type of tourist, experts say. Kailua might have trouble hosting 15,000 leisure tourists per day without angering residents, for example, while Waikiki might have no trouble hosting the same number of conventioneers meeting at the Hawaii Convention Center.

“Traditionally, we’ve been able to carry the capacity with no problems for a number of years,” said Jerry Gibson, a longtime Hawaii hotel executive who is now chief executive of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, a trade association.

Echoing observations of other tourism executives, Gibson pointed to the growth of vacation rentals, particularly on Oahu, as a main factor allowing visitor numbers to rise above 10 million per year when there were few new hotel rooms.

“Tolerance for hotels is much different,” he said. “Homes were never made to be hotels.”

Such a comment by a hotel executive might seem self-serving, but Eversole agreed with Gibson, as did Spencer, the UH professor.

“Just counting heads is very simplistic,” Spencer said. “You have to look at what people do as well as how long they stay to understand the touristic pressure of a visitor.”

Visitors enjoy swimming at Sharks Cove, Pupukea. North Shore.
Lawmakers in 2022 passed a measure creating the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District Carrying Capacity Pilot Program, designed to protect Shark’s Cove and the adjacent Kapoo Tidepools. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Others say it’s not resident sentiment that matters most, but the health of the ecosystems at risk from excessive tourism. In 2022, residents of Oahu’s North Shore faced what they described as an environmental crisis concerning the Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District. In response, they pushed for a program looking not at social capacity but environmental capacity.

A bill that became law last year noted threats to popular North Shore snorkeling spots Shark’s Cove and the adjacent Kapoo Tidepools, which it described as a rich nursery for over 50 species of marine life that replenish the entire Pupukea marine life conservation district and adjacent areas.

The Legislature acknowledged that “unabated levels of human use in certain areas of the Pupukea marine life conservation district, including Shark’s Cove and the Kapoo Tidepools, are threatening the health and abundance of the marine life in these sensitive areas, as well as limiting the use and enjoyment of the area by residents.”

The resulting Pupukea Marine Life Conservation District Carrying Capacity Pilot Program goes beyond merely assessing carrying capacity for Pupukea. It also requires the state to test various management measures. These include mandatory kapu, or closures, of high-traffic areas in the Pupukea marine life conservation district and other long-term management options.

Denise Antolini, a lawyer and North Shore resident who worked on the bill, said it’s time for more such carrying capacity programs, not just studies.

“Do we really need a whole other study on this?” she said. “The answer is no.”

Antolini commended the Hawaii Tourism Authority for developing Destination Management Action Plans for each island, written with input from community members. But she said the authority has done little to implement the plans. 

Among other things, Oahu community members wanted to “reduce visitor impacts by improving infrastructure, actively managing sites, and decreasing the number of visitors” and to “manage the visitor experience with capacity limits at hotspots, promoting or allowing only selected experiences, and offering alternatives to move visitors away from hotspots.”

She said the plans were “nicely written” but asked, “Where’s the blanking action?”

“We have to try,” she said. “We have to do things.”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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