LIHUE — Tourism is the largest single source of private capital for Hawaii’s economy, but how many visitors is too much on a small island like Kauai?
In recent weeks, multiple airlines — Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines — announced extra flights to Lihue from the West Coast, including cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver.
In fact, Hawaii Tourism Authority is anticipating a 42.6 percent increase of scheduled air services to Lihue for the first seven months of 2018 compared to the first seven months of 2017.
With more flights comes more visitors. And with more visitors comes more traffic congestion.
Eventually the island will reach its tipping point with visitors, said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.
“We have to look at the capacity of the airport. It’s rather full,” Kanoho said. “We’ll have to see how all of these flights will work with the current infrastructure. And there’s clearly a capacity of the island, and we’ve been running with very high numbers.”
A total of 758,699 seats are scheduled on 4,254 direct flights to Kauai for calendar year 2017.
Delta Airlines is adding one daily flight from Seattle to Lihue starting in December.
American Airlines will fly a Boeing 767 daily to Lihue from December from March.
United is also increasing service from Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Lihue.
Sustainable tourism will be the theme of an upcoming summit on Oahu next month, where perpetuating the tenets of Hawaiian culture is instrumental to Hawaii’s future success, both as a place to live and as a travel destination, according to Kalani Kaanaana, HTA director of Hawaiian cultural affairs.
Visitors, spending on rise
Year-to-date through June 2017, there have been 4,604,976 visitors, a 4.3 percent increase over 2016. Visitor spending reached $8.36 billion and also saw an 8.7 percent ($670.6 million) increase since 2016.
Statewide, average visitor spending per day equated to $46.2 million in 2017, with $5.3 million per day spending on Kauai.
Hawaiian Airlines announced last month the addition of three new daily routes between Oakland-Kauai, Portland-Maui and Los Angeles-Kona. Direct flights between Los Angeles and Lihue will resume year-round, and new daily non-stop service between Oakland and Lihue will begin in April.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesperson Alex Da Silva said while he couldn’t comment on HTA’s data, there was a push for more flights from the Mainland to Kauai.
“We recently turned our LAX-LIH seasonal summer service into a permanent daily flight serviced by wide-body aircraft due to consistently strong demand from our guests in California,” he said. “We are adding flights to meet demand while offering our guests the convenience of direct access to Kauai.”
Kanoho said Kauai can only hold as many visitors and residents as Lihue Airport can allow.
“Basically what happens, you hit a capacity. If the airport hits capacity, that’s it. You can only have so many gates for flights,” Kanoho said.
“People aren’t going to come if they can’t get around with no rental cars. The airlines don’t call me, they don’t call the visitor’s bureau and ask what we think of them adding more flights. We shared some thoughts and concerns about capacity on the island and shared where we think we need some attention.”
Kanoho said the increase in visitors and visitor spending in 2017 was the highest since 2007, before the economy crashed in 2008. But she doesn’t want people to overreact when they see the 42.6 percent increase in scheduled airfare in 2018.
“What’s happening is not everyone’s seeing the big picture,” Kanoho said.
Some Kauai residents express concerns
Ross Scott, owner and president of Sunshine Helicopters Kauai, said that just because his business gets more customers from increasing rates of tourism isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“It’s a yes and no (if more tourists is good for business) but the traffic is so congested on Kauai, I think that’s what’s gonna add to the congestion with more rental cars on the road,” Scott said.
There are around 10,000 to 15,000 rental cars on the road and average daily census runs between 20,000 to 25,000, depending on how many visitors are on island on any given day, Kanoho said.
But more rental cars aren’t the only concern.
“With going to a destination, you have to talk about all the variables,” Kanoho said. “You could have all these rooms available on the island, but flights are expensive so rooms sit empty. You could have really good airfare and the rooms are booked, so there’s nowhere for people to stay. You could have good airfare and rooms available, but there are no rental cars, which is not a good thing. Many of those variables keep visitors from coming and make them cancel their trip.
“The county has been looking heavily on shuttles and trying to look to get people out of cars. Maybe people don’t need to rent a car for seven days.”
Paulo Tambolo of Wailua Homesteads is concerned about the amount of cars on the road.
“Living here, we are competing with visitors everywhere, at crowded beaches, parks, trails, at stores, and on our jammed roads. Driving on the Eastside or North Shore, at almost any time, is stressful. Recreating with crowds is stressful.”
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Scott.
“It grows, but we’ve intentionally kept our operations on all the islands small,” he said. “Two or three helicopters. Right now, we only operate four on Kauai, two in Princeville and two in Lihue. I am thinking of going to three in each locations, but I would never think about going to five or six. It’s just a business philosophy of mine.”