KOLOA — Josh Helman’s sole source of income comes from the tourism industry.
Helman, owner of Dive Kauai, a Koloa-based company that offers snorkeling, whale watching and scuba diving excursions, said his business comes from people who visit Kauai.
“I have no local clientele at all,” he said. “If locals want to go scuba diving or boating, they can do it on their own.”
Jaycie Smith, an employee at Papalani Gelato in Anchor Cove, said the shop relies on the cruise ships that anchor at Nawiliwili Harbor.
“We get mostly tourists at this location, so we do depend a lot on the boats,” she said.
When the ships come in, Papalani’s Anchor Cove location gets very busy, Smith said.
“We don’t just get the people staying on the ship; we get the ship’s workers too,” she said.
If cruise ships stopped coming in, all of Anchor Cove would be affected, Smith said.
“When the boats don’t come in for a while, it impacts everyone,” she said.
Many elements key to success
Tourism has been, and remains, the main economic driver on Kauai, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.
There are over 25,000 visitors daily on Kauai. In 2015, a total of 1.16 million visitors traveled to Kauai — and they spent a lot of money.
Visitors in 2015 generated $1.6 billion, which is a 13.8 percent increase from 2014. On average, visitors stay a week on Kauai, and spend about $180 per day.
While visitors mostly come from the West Coast, Kauai also holds a strong market in Japan and Canada.
There are several working parts that allow tourism to thrive on the island, Kanoho said.
Factors like access, diversification, marketing, Hawaiian culture, public safety and infrastructure keep tourism running, Kanoho said.
“When you think about the whole island, there’s so much that needs to be humming to flow, and those elements need to work together,” she said.
Diversification and Hawaiian culture are important aspects because they keep the island from coming just another beach destination, Kanoho said.
“We want to preserve, protect and support the Hawaiian culture, (and) we want to provide festivals and events so there’s interaction between residents and tourists and people aren’t just lying on the beach,” she said.
Preserving the Hawaiian culture means saying “no” to certain opportunities that are presented to Kauai, Kanoho added.
“The question is how do we walk the fine line of growing and preserving what’s unique to Kauai,” she said.
In previous years, Kanoho said she’s declined offers from TV shows that wanted to film on the island.
“We don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything,” she said. “We accept what’s appropriate and is a compliment to who we are.”
One TV show that was given the OK to film on the island was the third season of the “Amazing Race.”
During the episode, teams had the choice of falling 160 feet from the top of Wailua Falls from a zipline or walking a hiking trail to find a clue box.
The zipline was created specifically for the show. But after the episode aired, people came to Kauai, asking to go on it, Kanoho said.
“Everyone wanted to zipline over Wailua Falls,” she said.
The show inspired local businesses to start ziplining tours, and now there are six zipline tours on the island.
Zipline and other tours, like kayak and stand-up paddleboarding, help provide the diversification KVB is looking for, Kanoho said.
She credits that diversification to a spike in the number of visitors in 2011. In 2010, there were 944,113 visitors to Kauai. That number rose to 1,011,500 a year later.
“There weren’t half as many activities on the island when I came here 10 years ago,” she said.
‘Significant’ job growth
Overall, unemployment on Kauai dropped a point, from 4.6 percent to 3.6 percent in January 2016, according the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. This year, when unemployment went down, employment in leisure and hospitality increased.
The Department of Labor divides leisure and hospitality into four categories: accommodation and food service; accommodation; food service and dining places; and full-service restaurants.
In January, there were 9,500 hospitality and leisure jobs on Kauai, said Bill Kuntsman, a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. That number is a couple hundred more than in January 2015.
“That’s significant for Kauai,” he said.
Employment in the accommodation and food service and food services and drinking places were both up by 500 in January, Kuntsman said.
As of January, there were 8,600 people employed in accommodation and food service. Over 4,000 people were employed in food service and drinking places, according to the statistics.
Full-service restaurant jobs also increased from 2,700 to 3,100 in 2016, Kuntsman said.
Tourism has played an important role in helping Kauai recover after the recession, Kuntsman said.
“In the last couple years, tourism is what pulled the economic engine along,” he said.
Tourism took a dive in 2009. Only 928,113 visitors came to Kauai that year. The last time Kauai saw so few tourists was after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. A year after the hurricane, only 576,336 visitors came to Kauai.
Iniki and the recession are examples of how one event can shake up the whole tourism industry, Kanoho said.
“It’s a very volatile industry,” Kanoho said. “One catastrophe can change everything because any one variable may impact a person’s decision to come.”
Jack Suyderhoud, a professor of business economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, agreed.
“The hurricane was bad because it destroyed the tourism infrastructure. The recession was the hurricane without the infrastructure concerns,” he said.
But as the number of visitors increases, so does the number of residents, and officials are cognizant of their responsibility to balance the needs of the visitors with those of the people who call this island home.
The population has increased by almost 20 percent in the last 15 years, said George Costa, director of economic development.
“Infrastructure has not kept up with population increase,” he said. “When we speak of traffic, we need to look at the numbers. There are close to 85,000 registered vehicles on the island and 10,000 are car rentals. All it takes is a drive through our residential communities to see how many vehicles there are in each driveway.”
Proposed traffic management systems include developing feeder roads, improving street design and town centers, and developing bus and shuttle services from the airport to resorts, according to a Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan Update for 2016 to 2018.
Teamwork is critical
But despite the work that needs to be done, Kanoho credits Kauai’s tourism boom to teamwork.
“We have great partnerships with everyone, like the hotels. We all work off each other, and that has lifted us up as one, and we’ve become a popular destination.”
If tourism on Kauai falters, there is nothing else on the island that could keep it running at full steam, Suyderhoud said.
“At least not in the short run. The basic reality is if tourism were to quit, the Kauai economy would suffer greatly — lost jobs, lower incomes and property values would be a result,” he said.
Not just the tourism industry would be affected, Helman said.
“Business in the tourism industry would be hit first, but it’d be a trickle-down effect,” he said. “Every business would see a dramatic decline because we won’t have that influx of people the island.”
No industry on Kauai could come close to replacing tourism, Suyderhoud said.
Kauai Cycle, a bike rental and repair shop in Kapaa, sees its fair share of tourists coming in to rent bikes, but it’s not as dependent on tourism as some other businesses, said Bruce Orth, chief mechanic.
“We have a full-service repair shop, so a lot of our business comes from residents,” he said.
But Orth does recognize the importance of tourism on the island as a whole.
“The island is pretty dependent on tourism overall; it’s a large economic base,” he said.
“You have to look at the history of the island — sugar is gone, and diversified agriculture may help a little,” he said.
“It’d be lovely to have an alternative, if there was one, but everything has been taken advantage of already.”
Helman, who has lived on the island for 23 years, said he’s an advocate for tourism.
“We need to hone it, and understand it, but we can’t drive it off,” he said.