Probably for the first time ever — but at least since 2006 — Kauai’s official visitor industry has formally acknowledged that the island has reached its capacity in terms of tourist numbers, and that those numbers must be held to current visitor counts.
While some may find this conclusion shocking, it constitutes the core of the newly completed Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan for 2019 through 2021.
While the fundamental assertion that the island has reached or likely exceeded its tourism carrying capacity will not be a surprise to most Kauai residents, the fact that the new plan reflects the official position of the island’s visitor industry is a new development.
Produced by a consortium constituting the County of Kauai, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association-Kauai and the Kauai Visitors Bureau, the plan was officially released last month to little public fanfare.
The plan introduces a new term — “overtourism” — to the Kauai visitor industry debate. That term already enjoys wide international use for popular tourist destinations from Yosemite to Venice.
“Kauai visitors have changed in recent years,” the new plan concludes. “In the past, when visitors mostly traveled in tour groups, stayed in hotels and got around on tour buses with a set itinerary, the impacts did not feel as great as they do now.
“Today, most visitors are free independent travelers, often staying in vacation rentals within communities, traveling in cars they rent for their entire stay and searching for special, ‘undiscovered’ places, including places they should not be.”
While few island residents would find that analysis surprising, the new plan is not, however, devoid of other facts that may surprise most residents. Consider:
• Despite the staggering tourism growth over the last 30 years, the number of annual tourist arrivals on Kauai is actually still slightly less than it was in 1990, when 1,228,850 tourists landed here. In 2017, the total was 1,276,803, according to the Kauai Visitors Bureau.
• What the total tourist arrival numbers don’t show, however, is that because visitor behavior has changed and lengths of stay increased, the number of tourists on Kauai on the average day has grown exponentially — from 17,378 in 1990 to 26,275 in 2017, according to the Kauai Visitors Bureau. Officials said that, in 2018, so far, there have been a handful of days when visitor counts have hit as much as nearly 35,000.
• While many local people believe the visitor industry is alone responsible for growing traffic congestion and overcrowding, as well as the scarcity of affordable housing, the fact is that natural growth of the resident population has exceeded rates of increase for daily presence on island for tourists. In 1990, the resident population was 51,676 and today it is 72,029. Both visitor and permanent population figures have increased since 1990 — with visitor counts subject to great fluctuation as a result of natural disasters and economic downturns — but the rates of increase over the 27-year period are, essentially identical. Visitor counts have been more volatile, with substantial dips after Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and the Great Recession of 2007-09.
• The number of hotels has not changed substantially in that same period, but the advent of vacation rentals — from rooms in individual homes to rental of entire estates at a cost of more than $10,000 per night — has caused the same growth as building two, or even three, huge new hotels.
• Though the gross total number of visitor arrivals remains below that of 1990, the average length of stay and fundamental tourist behavior have changed dramatically. While tourists in 1990 largely confined themselves to the grounds of their hotels or moved about in bus tour groups, today’s tourist is far more mobile, with rental cars now the nearly universal mode of transportation.
• Even if controls could be implemented on large rental car firms, the arrival on island of ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft — as well as a cottage industry of residents privately renting their personal vehicles to visitors — would need to be addressed. About 10 years ago, county officials learned of one tourist family that, told no rental cars were available at the airport, found a U-Haul truck to use during their stay.
• While at least three layers of government — federal, state and county — have at least some power to control visitor volumes, they scarcely coordinate their activities. The federal government, for example, could limit the number of airline seats that can be sold to travelers coming here.
• Separately, state government owns and operates the airports and could aggressively curtail gate access and implement other capacity controls — yet has not done so. The county, which might like to limit rental cars — or raise taxes and fees on them to inhibit market growth — is precluded from doing so by the state, which has so far failed to act.
• The county, which does have the legal power to license and control transient vacation rentals, is trying valiantly to do so, but its efforts have so far largely been neutralized by comparatively low fines imposed on violators, which generally means owners of high-end properties — those charging $1,000 a night or more — see the fines as another cost of doing business to be passed on to customers. In addition, violators have also taken to appealing the rulings, a lengthy process during which time an illegal TVR property can continue to operate for months, or even years, as the case winds through the bureaucracy.
• Though at least two counties — Honolulu and Maui — have begun the process of imposing far heftier fines on illegal TVR operators, Kauai has yet to follow suit. Denise Warlow, general manager of Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, a 300-unit resort, said state government should long ago have taken up the challenge and moved to permit or impose far higher penalties on illegal vacation operators.
In addition to Wardlow, Sue Kanoho, who heads the Kauai Visitors Bureau, and Nalani Brun, tourism specialist for the Kauai Office of Economic Development, said the important take-away from the new report is that “more” can no longer be seen as an acceptable objective for the Kauai visitor industry.
All three women were involved in developing the new plan, in addition to dozens of others, from government officials to community members.
Ann Walton of Community Coalition Kauai, who also helped develop the plan, summed up the apparent feelings of many.
“No one said this would be simple. It’s going to take a major effort to diversify our mono-economy: re-thinking how humans interact with the natural environment, our greatest asset and most prominent marketing tool; changing the visitor experience from one of overcrowded attractions and time spent sitting in traffic; and, returning to the rural lifestyle our residents deserve,” Walton said. “As the document recognizes, what constituted a success in the past, when viewed through a different lens, we now see as a crisis.”
Kanoho’s focus was slightly more tempered, consistent with her status as a leader of the tourism industry.
But, she asked, “Shouldn’t it be OK to maintain what we have? Why do we have to constantly expand? Couldn’t flat be OK?”
Looking to the future
The new plan constitutes an extraordinary departure from its two predecessors, issued in 2006 and 2016. Each of those advocated continued growth of the industry, though the 2016 plan suggested possible limits to what Kauai can absorb.
The new document goes much further. “On Kauai, as in many world-class visitor destinations, times have changed,” it concludes. “We are at a tipping point and the risk of overtourism threatens the environment, quality of life and the visitor experience.
“For the visitor industry to continue to thrive and be a positive contributor to our economy, it must also be a vital partner in contributing to the quality of life for Kauai residents and protecting our island’s precious resources. This requires a ‘refocus’ within the visitor industry.”
The plan, said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, “sets out a very realistic picture for what the future could look like in terms of tourism on Kauai.”
The new strategic plan makes dozens of recommendations. Key among them:
• Government agencies, organizations of all types in the private sector and legislators at all levels of government must find a way to ensure the county’s legal ability to influence the number of flights and air seats sold on routes bound to Kauai.
• The county must reduce or restrict the number of new visitor housing units on island and withdraw transient vacation rental entitlement for properties that either have not yet been constructed or have gone out of service. A primary factor in the number of TVRs that are temporarily out of service has been the disastrous storm in April and Hurricane Lane in August.
• Improve waste-management practices islandwide and place greater emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions. Though the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative’s rapid embrace of renewable electricity technologies has softened the emissions blow for Kauai, motor vehicle transportation and emissions from aircraft flying to and from here largely neutralizes the positive effects of KIUC’s program.
• Embrace much stricter enforcement of ordinances that prohibit illegal TVR operations. Although the county Planning Department already has a special TVR violation unit, its operations require expansion and the ability of violators to buy time through the appeals process must be addressed.
• Far greater use of transportation technologies must be made and restrictions may have to be imposed on the amount of time tourists can spend in individual rental cars, as opposed to shuttles and other mass transit modalities. More emphasis on pedestrian and bicycle transportation is essential.
Overall, the plan concludes, “While tourism has provided valuable jobs, state and county tax revenues and helped support other opportunities, the current level of tourism has overstretched the resources and infrastructure of Kauai.
“At just 552 square miles and a 2017 population of 72,159, on average in a given day, one in three people on Kauai is a visitor. Over the past year, there have been no major capacity improvements to the island’s infrastructure. Experience has shown that the visitor and resident experience are both strained.”