Hawaiʻi Tourism: How Much is Too Much?

Sep 19, 2017

Credit Tor Johnson / Hawaii Tourism Authority

From hiking trails to beaches, the feeling of being overrun by visitors can be inescapable on some weekends here in Hawai’i. This week, HPR takes a closer look at tourism as part of our series - Travelling Money: Managing Hawai’i’s Tourism Future. HPR Reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi asks how much is too much?

A visitor destination’s capacity for tourism functions much like a concert venue’s capacity for concertgoers. That’s according to Geoff Bolan, CEO for Seattle-based non-profit Sustainable Travel International.

North Shore traffic during the 2016 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational Surf Contest.
Credit Anthony Quintano

“Right, there’s 20,000 tickets, 5,000 tickets, whatever that might be. And whether you agree with it or not, there is a capacity for that building. Presumably the capacity has to do with the number of seats and ability to get in and out of exits and the water system and all of that,” says Bolan, “Unfortunately, the tourism world really hasn’t done that. It’s sort of been more and more and more.”

Visitor spending in Hawai’i has been rising for 14 months in a row, and is on track to set another record for 2017. This would be its sixth straight year of records for visitor spending and visitor arrivals. The question is, “is there a limit?” Bolan says, “It depends.”

Front Street, Lahaina, Maui.
Credit Tor Johnson / Hawaii Tourism Authority

“Are you focusing on the apple cart and the golden goose, a.k.a. all those tourists and all those dollars?” says Bolan, “And/or are you focusing on the reason they come there? In other words the assets that makes your place unique, special.”

Hawai’i’s natural beauty, rich culture, and hospitable people, set the islands apart from other tourist destinations. But quantifying the adverse impacts to these assets remains a problem. We often don’t see a destination’s threshold for tourism until we’ve passed it.

Credit Mark Kushimi / Hawaii Tourism Authority

“So you see it in places like Barcelona and Venice. And it’s happening in Iceland, and you can make the case that Hawai’i is on its way there,” says Bolan.

Recent protests in Barcelona and Venice forced local governments to address the negative impacts being felt by residents in those destinations. Iceland, which has seen a boom in tourism over the past five years, is considering limiting the number of visitors.

“You know when you see very notable impacts. When you see and feel overcrowding? When locals have a lot of tension in relation to, that’s driven by tourism because there’s long lines or there’s more waste or whatever. You know, you’re too late,” says Bolan, “Let’s just be honest with it. You’re just too late.”

Credit Flickr

With record-breaking tourism numbers rolling in and global travel industry growth forecasted to outpace economic growth, Hawai’i has an opportunity to be proactive in guiding the growth of its tourism industry.

“If you don’t force change in a planned way, you’re gonna get it in a chaotic way,” says Bolan, ʻLet’s try and think about how could we reconfigure this such that our image going forward is not only beautiful water and amazing forests and fascinating culture, but a tourism that lives in sync with that and not kind of in conflict.”