w Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at tourism’s impact on Kauai. Part two will be published in Monday’s TGI.
A United Airlines news release in June seemed straightforward enough.
The airline announced it was doubling the number of nonstop flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Lihue and upping nonstop service from Denver to year-round from seasonal.
Let’s do the numbers. According to the Hawaii Department of Transportation, Lihue Airport counted 2,865,267 people getting on and off planes in 2016. Let’s assume half were getting on and half getting off, or 1,432,633 arriving passengers, for the sake of argument.
Takeoffs and landings have been rising steadily since 2011, rocketing upward from 100,487 that year to 132,398 in 2015, the last full year for which there are figures.
The Boeing 757 aircraft United flies nonstop to Lihue seats 169 people. If the increase in service from Denver accounts for about six months a year, United had announced it was adding a total of 154,212 seats to Lihue from those three airports. In other words, United, by itself, will add to Lihue’s incoming passenger total by nearly 11 percent. United did not dispute this calculation.
The increases start, according to United, on Dec. 20.
Then there is an anecdote recounted by County Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura at a recent hearing on the General Plan Update. She was questioning a staff member of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources about the ongoing burden of ever-increasing numbers of visitors to Kauai.
Alan Carpenter, DLNR’s assistant administrator, has been leading DLNR’s effort to introduce a new master plan for Haena State Park that will cut the number of people who can go there from 2,000 to 900 per day.
He acknowledged what everyone in the room, most likely, already knew. “There are tough choices we have to make,” he said. “Do you allow 900 people to have a good experience or 2,000 people to have a crummy experience?”
In an interview, Carpenter expanded on what he told the council.
“Tourism volume is straining our park infrastructure and our ability to maintain facilities to an acceptable standard,” he said. “This impacts the quality of experience for both residents and visitors alike.”
It seems Yukimura was at Kokee State Park one day a few weeks ago. On her way down the hill, she needed to use a restroom. Although Carpenter allowed as how Kokee has more trails and visitor facilities, by far, than Haena, Yukimura encountered bathroom gridlock at every restroom. Like virtually every state park in Hawaii, Kokee’s facilities are jammed way past capacity.
“Not only was there a long line (at every restroom location), but the toilets didn’t flush,” Yukimura said. “I knew where the all the toilets were, and I still ended up driving all the way down to Waimea. What about those visitors who don’t know where the next toilet is?”
Will state see ripple effect from hurricanes?
To this equation, add a factor many members of the Legislature are starting to take into account.
Remember how long it took Kauai tourism to recover from Hurricane Iniki? Then switch the calculus to Puerto Rico, most of the Caribbean and much of Florida and Texas, struggling to recover from two different hurricanes. Many hotels are closed indefinitely and everything from electricity to roads are far enough from recovery. What will happen?
Rep. Nadine Nakamura fears she may have the answer. In an interview, she said of people who want vacations in warm places near an ocean over the next few months: “They’re coming here.”
“Some of Hawaii’s major competitors for visitors have been hit by natural disaster,” she said. “Many visitors looking for a tropical vacation will come to Hawaii while these areas rebuild. We should use this strategic opportunity to invest in our tourism infrastructure. We need more park rangers (and other staff). Where our resources are overrun, we have to place limits.
“We want our residents to have access to and enjoy our natural resources, and not have visitors overwhelm them.”
There is no official confirmation of the theory that there will be even more of a tourist invasion because of the hurricanes. Travel industry experts say it’s way too soon to tell, but few question the logic of Nakamura’s theory — and she is far from the only public official who subscribes to it.
One national association of business travel directors said that although a mass exodus has not yet materialized, signs are emerging that business conference bookings will shift from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Florida to Hawaii.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority, which handles an $83 million annual budget — the lion’s share of which is devoted to marketing and advertising to encourage more people to come here — professes skepticism.
Charlene Chan, the HTA’s director of communications, would only say: “We have no research to support whether that is, or will be, the case.”
Looking to Legislature for possible assistance
Nakamura said she is considering legislative options for 2018. One bill, for example, might add a rental car surcharge exclusively to improve trails, parks and tourist shuttle transportation on each island.
Another bill could substantially increase parking fines, all the revenue from which goes to the state, as laws are currently written, and make wider use of tow-away zones in particularly congested areas.
She advocates reallocating the lion’s share of HTA’s advertising and marketing budget to improve tourist infrastructure.
And Nakamura would wade back into the controversy over counties’ share of the Transient Accommodations Tax, which many local governments — Kauai’s included — feel has been hijacked by the Legislature and spent on Oahu.
Nakamura said she thinks a TAT surcharge for investment in visitor and resident park and other facilities is worth considering.
It is important to remember, Nakamura said, how limited are the legal powers of counties. They can’t limit rental cars or impose taxes or surcharges; they can’t limit flight arrivals; they can’t cap the number of visitors; they get no revenue from traffic and parking fines; they can’t tell visitors where they may and may not go. They are at the mercy of the state in terms of revenue sharing.
HTA has aggressively fended off efforts to refocus its budget priorities. It even beat back legislation last year that would have redirected just $3 million of its budget to subsidizing travel expenses for University of Hawaii sports teams.
“HTA’s marketing efforts support Hawaii’s tourism industry, which is vital to the continued health of the state’s economy and livelihoods of families on all islands,” Chan said.
Chan noted that the visitor industry generated $15.9 billion in spending here in 2016 and provided 194,000 jobs.
For Kauai, tourism obviously means huge money. A total of 97,000 visitors spent $127 million here in September alone, according to HTA. That represented a 9.1 percent rise in people and 1.9 percent increase in spending from September 2016.
Yet there can be little doubt that whatever Kauai’s capacity for the number of visitors it can handle, we’ve exceeded it. By a lot.
And United Airlines’ expansion is just part of the air travel equation that will directly influence how much more tourist-saturated Kauai becomes.
Hawaiian also to expand, Southwest to join market
Hawaiian Airlines has already announced it will expand its flight schedule into Lihue starting in 2018, when it begins taking delivery of Airbus 320neos. It is a single-aisle plane that offers configurations that seat at least 165 passengers.
And a few weeks ago, Southwest Airlines confirmed what had been widely assumed in the airline industry for months: After years of contemplating Hawaii, Southwest is coming here — probably non-stop from somewhere to Kauai. Southwest’s arrival is projected for sometime in 2018.
“We are humbled by and grateful for Gov. (David) Ige’s warm invitation” to add destinations in Hawaii to its network, Southwest said.
Asked if Southwest takes into consideration factors like adequacy of tourist infrastructure and capacity when it decides where to fly, a spokesman said, “We absolutely do survey items of infrastructure and capacity and, as hopeful entrants to a community, also engage in discussions across a spectrum” of local people.
That hasn’t happened on Kauai yet, but Southwest said it has met with Hawaiian cultural leaders on Oahu.
The HTA, for its part, says it has no position on whether airline capacity should be subject to limitations or whether legislation should be introduced to limit the number of rental cars in the state.
It’s no surprise that Kauai legislators are spearheading a movement to try to inspire action by state government to address tourism issues in general — and those on Kauai, which often seems to be bursting at the seams with visitors, in particular.
Rep. Dee Morikawa, who recently ascended to the position of majority floor leader in the House, said legislative leadership expects “to formulate a priority package for next session and we’re going to put our weight behind those initiatives. Perhaps we (Neighbor Islands representatives) are the ones to drive the policy because a lot of HTA issues are Oahu-driven.”
Mark Perriello, CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, has a different take, and he is far from alone.
“We do not have a visitor problem. We have a people problem,” Perriello said. “The number of new residents is outpacing the increase in visitor arrivals.”
And natural population growth due to births is as much — or more — of a driver as Mainland people relocating to Kauai.
If increases in Kauai’s population — about 22,000 since Hurricane Iniki — are factored into Kauai’s congestion problem, “there is no doubt that residents and visitors alike are feeling the squeeze,” he said.
“Our roads are congested and riddled with potholes. There is little or no parking at some of our major tourist attractions and employers report record low unemployment.
“That said, despite our shortcomings, Kauai should be a welcoming place for anyone who chooses to travel here to experience the island’s strong rejuvenating energy and epic beauty. Some people save for years to experience what we do every day.”