Pondering Kauai’s growing tourism dilemma

Buried at the bottom of a page of the Kauai County General Plan Update draft now in circulation is a sentence addressing Kauai’s most pressing concern: Have we reached the point of tourism saturation and, if so, what do we do?

The tourism section of the update plan addresses “managing growth” of the visitor industry. It makes clear what we all know: Tourism is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s the force that drives the island’s economy without which many families would be economically destroyed.

On the other hand, visitor numbers have become so many that it approaches absolute saturation — if not already surpassing the saturation point. I personally subscribe to the latter view.

The update acknowledges what everyone knows. Tourism is a cyclic industry and just when things are going well, along comes a hurricane or an economic downturn. Sadly, the plan abdicates any serious review or tourism on Kauai, and punts, saying: “If history can be trusted, we can expect some form of disrupting event in the visitor industry every five or 10 years.”

In other words, the plan is telling us we have to blindly assume that some catastrophe will intervene to save us from ourselves. Pray for a hurricane or a recession — or maybe the silly boycott advocated by some Trump supporters in protest of a Hawaii judge enjoining the administration’s most recent Muslim ban — to keep the tourists away.

But let’s look at the document’s lack of planning in another context: Just this past week, developer Jeff Stone announced that he wants to build a new 80-room luxury hotel on a ridge overlooking Hanalei. And Hawaii Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation is considering rule changes that would take the capacity limits off boat tour operators, surf schools and other water sports businesses in Hanalei Bay.

If these two proposals come to fruition, they would entice even more visitors to come all the way up the road, which alarms many on the North Shore.

The General Plan Update says Kauai’s average daily visitor count increased from 19,675 to 24,533 between 2005 and 2015. If there are only about 70,000 of us residents, that would mean more than one in four people on Kauai on the average day are tourists.

Oahu economist Paul Brewbaker was on Kauai recently for a presentation to the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. He observed that Kauai’s inventory of available visitor rooms is 8,582 — of which hotels and timeshares each account for 31 percent. Vacation rentals — which many local people blame for the congestion wrought by the visitor tide — and condominium rentals trail behind. Since Aloha Airlines shut down in 2008, Kauai visitor stays have lengthened by an average of one day, to 7.9 days for people from the United States and 5.1 days for international tourists.

It has only been in the last year or two that visitor expenditures have recovered to the level preceding Aloha’s failure, but overall, Brewbaker concluded, tourist spending is on an upward trend, although economic predictors suggest this may not last much longer.

More tellingly, as comparatively solid as the current recovery may be, Kauai has only recently attained the same level of monthly visitor arrivals as immediately before Hurricane Iniki. The General Plan Update’s reliance on catastrophe is therefore credible as a historic indicator.

But what if the tourism statistics we’ve all seen low-ball what Kauai is actually experiencing? That point was raised by Carl Imparato of the Hanalei-to-Haena Community Association at a recent Planning Commission meeting.

His organization contends that the average daily visitor count is higher than the official numbers, swelling the population of the island by 34 percent.

“Even that number understates the magnitude of the impact,” Imparato testified. “For four months of the year, the (count) is 10 percent to 15 percent higher than the annual average.”

So for much of the year, he said, visitors swell the island population by a mind-boggling 37 to 39 percent.

“The plan’s tourism growth projection is unrealistically low, ignores the actual growth data for the last five years and conceals the true magnitude of Kauai’s tourism growth management problem,” he testified.

Because the North Shore population trails that of the rest of the island, the Hanalei-Wainiha-Haena corridor has become Exhibit A of a very, very worrisome trend. Census data show that between 2010 and 2015, the corridor’s permanent resident population dropped 45 percent from 1,199 to 658, while the number of residential living spaces grew 6 percent from 803 to 850.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize who is occupying those spaces. Blogger and commentator Joan Conrow has done a thorough investigation that demonstrates clearly that transient vacation rentals — legal and illegal — are strangling the area, effectively depopulating one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the world. It is a version of “local cleansing,” leaving the area to affluent part-time or offshore owners who can afford to buy investment properties and remove their profits elsewhere.

More and more frequently, I hear people asking if ANYONE still actually lives in Hanalei. It’s a big exaggeration, but it’s still truly scary. With no local residents, communities die. Civic participation — whether improving schools or electing responsive government — evaporates.

A familiar litany of proposals argue that the county should take measures to bring the tourist flood under control such as levying a rental car tax or instituting priority access to parking and campgrounds for residents. Imparato’s group sent the Planning Commission a logical, detailed letter that urged everything from increasing rental car taxes and taxes on resorts, restricting vehicle traffic on much of the North Shore to residents only, to permitting absolutely no new tourist development outside of the island’s existing official visitor destination areas.

It’s the same seeming insoluble dilemma that underscores Kauai’s challenge: Tourism is now, and will be for decades, the primary economic driver of life on the island. At the same time, the island has reached — and did so years ago — the point of visitor overdose.

A column like this has some kind of moral obligation to not just describe a problem, but to suggest solutions. The best I can do is to say that we already know many of the ingredients to a solution. More study is not necessary. Now we have to find the will to prioritize and implement them.

In an aside on one of his famous albums, Iz said of women what Kauai must now say about tourists: “You can’t live wid ‘em and you can’t live widout ‘em.” It’s like that.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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