Leaders eye price island pays for robust tourism

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.”

13 Comments
  1. Tom Pickett November 26, 2017 7:03 am Reply

    Thank you Alan for this article, pointed, focused and informed. Consider this metric; With a bit of an increase we will have one visitor for every two residents in our “house”. (Currently 65,930 residents and 29,437 visitors on any average week).
    That’s like your local family of four has two guests in the house every night of the year. The guests do not make their beds, clean their toilets, cook their meals, do their dishes or help in the yard. You would like to hire domestic help to service your visitors. Unfortunately there is no help available because there is no place for them to live.
    HTA needs a reboot. Shouldn’t part of their mission be “to improve visitor experience”? How about budgeting more for affordable housing solutions and less for promotion.
    1.8% unemployment on a small island is not a positive economic sign it is a red light that signifies long term, persistent problems.


  2. BeHappy November 26, 2017 7:52 am Reply

    Our island is too populated for the infrastructure. As long as our leaders do not have the interests of the residents in mind and instead cater to the visitors to get their dollars, we will see no relief. Nakamura sees the results of a very active tourism department who gets paid to bring in more dollars. At some point these representatives of ours have to step back too take a look at the health of the island as a whole and not at the almighty $$ which is not what the Hawaii spirit is about. Local residents would rather not have as many businesses, hotels, restaurants, etc and preserve the beauty of the island. Our taxes are being spent to bring in more people to give us more dollars for things we don’t need.


  3. BeHappy November 26, 2017 8:01 am Reply

    We are sacrificing Kauai for the tourists $$!


  4. numilalocal November 26, 2017 10:09 am Reply

    How much money does the HTA contribute towards protecting the very resources which it so aggressively markets?


  5. steve ball November 26, 2017 11:59 am Reply

    Nice try deflecting all the overcrowding problems on the increase in residents, but it does not fly. Visitors contribute to the economy but residents contribute continually via Property Tax, Income Tax, GET, Gas Tax, and other fees/taxes. We residents are opening our wallets to fix the problems. Time for the politicians to do their part.


  6. PauloT November 26, 2017 12:02 pm Reply

    Good article on our ongoing problem, soon to worsen with extra airlift. If tourism is so lucrative why is there no money for basic road repair? Other than numerous jobs which we can’t keep filled, the financial gain isn’t enough to be noticed by the majority of residents.

    Basic questions: How are we going to get across Wailua Bridge? Where will we get enough workers to staff the planned, approved, yet to be built resorts? Will the workers be coming from off island? How many new residences will be constructed to house the new workers? How can we get the HTA to stop marketing Hawaii? Visitors will still be arriving without their help.

    Rep. Nadine Nakamura advocates reallocating the lion’s share of HTA’s advertising and marketing budget to improve tourist infrastructure. Including road repair and expansion hopefully.


  7. John Zwiebel November 26, 2017 4:02 pm Reply

    I contribute to Planned Parenthood.


  8. Sunrise_blue November 26, 2017 7:30 pm Reply

    How can? You don’t pay any bills. For HTA? $83 million annual budget. That would be from their perspective. HTA


  9. Sunrise_blue November 26, 2017 7:42 pm Reply

    Your politics is based on a free gift assessment. Via kitv4 news at 6:00 p.m. news. Propaganda, a cultural status. Not applicable or not full deck.


  10. Lee November 27, 2017 3:08 pm Reply

    I would really like to see TGI research the County’s revenue, then compare this and report on the projects we’re getting for our money. In the last 5 years, we’ve seen Lihue Bridge, Hardy Street, Nawiliwili Road, the Koloa Ditch bridge, and bus benches. Many of these projects are funded with Federal or State money. How can we be in such a period of growth residentially and commercially yet see very little improvement in the infrastructure? Some of the roads get paved or patched. A public restroom gets repaired here or there. What else? Could we see a list of projects and their funding? I understand much of our “income” gets taken away from the State, so what has the State done for Kauai, lately?


  11. John Zwiebel November 27, 2017 5:13 pm Reply

    We just booked a room for two nights in Miami. The tax alone was over $100. Florida doesn’t have an income tax because it chooses to “soak the tourists”. If the tourists want better bathrooms (and they certainly should want something better than our parks have now, I do) then they need to pay for it. Someone needs to pay, why is it Kauai residents?


  12. Sarah November 28, 2017 12:41 pm Reply

    Why don’t the state parks charge non-residents entrance fees? It seems like that would solve a lot of the revenue problems and help pay for the maintenance of the parks.


  13. Pete Antonson November 28, 2017 2:46 pm Reply

    There was a real LOL moment in this article.

    If you’re driving 15 miles through the woods and you can’t think of a solution to your need to use a bathroom then you really don’t belong in the woods. I’ve hiked all day with plenty of females who don’t need to be within a ten minute radius of a McDonald’s in order to venture outside!


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