We focus too much on visitor counts. What’s more important is visitor impacts.

By Kirk Caldwell, April 8, 2022

We all play to our strengths, whether as individuals, organizations, or communities.  And tourism has long been one of Hawai‘i’s strengths. Travel is without a doubt the driving force of our economy, and we are fortunate it’s an industry that’s founded in the sharing of aloha with people from around the world. 

But as it has grown – and how it has grown – tourism is threatening many aspects of our Islands’ well-being, including our natural beauty, the character of neighborhoods, and – most worrisome of all – local people’s very spirit of aloha for visitors.

We need to set some new directions for tourism or we will lose what makes Hawai‘i so special.

We focus so much on visitor counts, and for many there is a drumbeat to return to pre pandemic levels as quickly as possible. Others, meanwhile, look at those growing numbers with alarm, worried that we are already beyond our visitor limit.

But the number of visitors shouldn’t be our only measure. What kinds of visitors, where they stay, what they do while they’re here, how much and where they spend, and what impacts they make…these are what cause the real pressures and push-backs.

We need to manage tourism to our mutual benefit. We need to provide better and more appropriate activities for visitors, so they don’t flood local parks and beaches, attractions, the road to Hana, the north shores of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, Laniakea, and other choke points.

We need a visitor management plan that draws clear lines and takes bold action for change.

  • Visitors should be accommodated in planned resort areas, and any new units should be built within these areas. Zoning laws should be strengthened to define where visitors can legally stay.  
  • Enforcement measures must be implemented to stop the illegal creep of vacation rentals into residential neighborhoods.  
  • The counties should be given full discretion over their own TAT (hotel room tax). This will allow each county to better determine its visitor carrying capacity.
  • We need to reduce traffic and parking congestion around scenic lookouts and control commercial access to beaches, parks, and trails.
  • We must proactively manage and protect natural resources that visitors want to use, upgrade needed infrastructure, and set visitor limits where needed, like we implemented at Hanauma Bay.

We also need to take a hard look at how many tourism dollars actually stay in the Islands. As rates, fares, and admission prices climb higher and higher, increased wages and benefits should flow down to tourism workers so they can continue to afford to live here. And we need to ensure our local suppliers and service providers are being supported. The big players need to be on Hawai‘i’s side.

Our natural beauty, sense of community, and aloha spirit are what make Hawai‘i a special place. We need to take better care to ensure we are protecting those qualities. In doing so, we will also better serve our visitors, the best of whom crave those qualities as well.