Tourist destinations around the world are reacting to growing numbers of visitors adding to congestion, increasing costs of living and disrupting fragile ecosystems.
“This is our state’s largest industry, so we have to do a better job of addressing our parks, traffic and safety,” said Rep. Nadine Nakamura.
Some travel destinations are looking closely for ways to solve issues of massive traffic jams, creaking infrastructure, environmental degradation and rising rents.
In 2017, police advised visitors to stay away from Scotland’s second-largest island, Isle of Skye, due to noise complaints, overcrowding and visitors urinating in public.
In Spain, Barcelona’s government passed a law to limit tourist beds after anti-tourist graffiti and protests of services like Airbnb that sent rents soaring and forced residents from homes.
Dubrovnik, Croatia, is capping the number of visitors at 4,000 a day and cutting the number of cruise ships entering the ancient port. Visitors to Santorini, Greece, have been capped to 8,000 a day by the island’s mayor in 2017 with a rising population. Other destinations like Bhutan and Nepal are minimizing environmental impacts by charging daily fees and implementing permit guidelines and restrictions.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority is projecting a 40 percent increase in air seats this year, so tourism impacts on Kauai may also increase. However, the 6,500-foot Lihue Airport runway limits larger international aircraft and numbers of seats.
“I don’t think we need to extend our runway,” said Jim Braman, general manager for The Cliffs at Princeville and Kauai chapter chair for the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association (HLTA). “Kauai’s niche is that we’re the rural getaway kind of place, and we need to keep it that way. So I would never advocate for direct Japan flights. We’re looking at who can we talk to about the number of flights, and that’s controlled by the state and the feds.”
Other board members agreed it is also important to schedule flight arrivals and departures when local traffic is not heaviest during work commute and school zone times.
“If we coordinated flight times with resident travel patterns, we could do probably quite a bit to save some congestion,” Braman said. “Reaching out to people in places that have had tourism issues and dealt with them successfully is probably one of the biggest things we can do.”
The No. 1 priority of the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan Update Fiscal Year 2016-18 is to support traffic management systems to reduce congestion and improve safety by developing feeder roads, improving street design, developing transportation service from the airport to resorts, and creating pedestrian networks. In order to accomplish this, the current plan advocates for lifting the cap on existing Transient Accommodation Tax funds, increasing the allocation to Kauai for improvement in services and infrastructure.
“We already, as a visitor industry, provide $300 million to the state,” said HLTA board member Denise Wardlow. “Kauai residents need to push our state legislators to improve our highways.”
Of the 80,000 registered vehicles on island, nearly 12,000 are rental cars. Over the last few years, two North Shore shuttle pilots had proved somewhat unsuccessful in alleviating traffic congestion.
“It wasn’t successful to carry on, because when they have the choice of driving their car versus riding a shuttle, they’re going to drive their car,” said Sue Kanoho, executive director at Kauai Visitors Bureau. “It did work well, actually, for some residents.”
According to Kanoho, a Haena master plan is scheduled to go before the Department of Land and Natural Resources to request limits on visitors to Ke’e Beach, requiring reservations with fees and permits.
Nakamura is also working with a group focusing on visitor impacts at Haena State Park, especially illegal parking on the state highway never intended to accommodate 2,000 visitors a day. She introduced a bill to create a surcharge that would go to county law enforcement and another bill to increase rental car fees for highway improvements and public transit.
While the bill did not survive, the concept was included in another bill that is moving forward.
“The state should partner with the counties and visitor industry to address visitor impacts,” Nakamura said. “Only when all stakeholders come together will we be able to address the most pressing problems and come up with solutions.”
Kauai’s population of 72,000 residents may also increase with growing demands from the tourism industry plus visitors wishing to relocate.
“Our average daily census was for the year was 26,275 visitors,” Kanoho said. “We need to look at the island as a whole and not just blame the visitor industry for all the challenges that we’re dealing with.”
Visitor units for 2017 on Kauai totaled 8,821 for condos, hotels, vacation rentals and timeshares.
“I have 173 two-bedroom units, and we can rent them out separately,” said Wardlow, general manager of Westin Princeville Ocean Villas, which is currently at maximum capacity. “A lot of the major resorts have a sustainability program, whether it’s recycling or saving on utilities and water. … We recycle all of our bottles and use all the money to give back to the community through charities.”
Like other eco-conscientious hotels, Westin has plans to install fountains to refill water bottles and implement methods to limit generation of waste through recycling and composting. The hotel also continues education efforts with compendiums and videos addressing the importance of safety from hazards of swimming, hiking, driving and emergency situations.
In order to counter some of the negative effects of tourism, a combined effort must take place with many partners, including issues of noise pollution and drunken behavior that require action from law enforcement.
“Our leaders recognize it and are trying to put regulations in place, but if you can’t enforce it regulation means nothing,” Wardlow said. “Most important to us is ensuring that our visitors have a positive experience. And we do recognize at a certain point, that’s not going to happen anymore.”
Preserving Kauai’s unique cultural identity is another important issue, and some tourist venues are already working closely with organizations, such as Waipa Foundation and Kauai Museum, to perpetuate the island’s heritage.
“Tourism is good for our island,” said Dr. Gordon LaBedz, vice chair of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter. “Agriculture is extremely destructive and polluting. Farming, with its large scale destruction of nature, its chemicals and its machinery is far more destructive than Hawaii’s tourism.”
“Eco-voluntourism” is another concept that encourages visitors to care for the island’s ecosystems, through organizations like Malama Kauai and future coordination with Parks and Recreation and Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“At least with tourism, there should be an incentive to keep the place looking beautiful and protecting nature,” LaBedz said.
Homegrown initiatives to protect fragile ecosystems, like coral reefs, and threatened species, like monk seals, are taking place from community organizations with residents talking and posting signs to educate visitors of non-toxic sunscreen, to prevent damage from walking on reefs and to give wildlife adequate space.
“When visitors have a good experience, they return and they tell their friends,” LaBedz said. “If they are caught in traffic all day, if the restaurants are lousy, if they are brushed off by rude employees, they won’t return. We all have an incentive to make the visitors happy. Employment here is driven by tourism.”
A “Responsible Tourism” presentation will take place on March 15, hosted by Kauai Visitors Bureau, along with the County of Kauai, Kauai Chamber of Commerce and Kauai Economic Development Board.
The expert speaker will be Olof Yrr Altadottir, former director general of the Icelandic Tourist Board and past vice president of the European Travel Commission.
“Tourism has opportunities that are far reaching, and yet we understand economic diversification too,” Kanoho said.