Overtourism: Time for some limits

  • Bill Buley / The Garden Island Bill Fernandez holds a copy of his latest book, "Hawaiian Rebellions: Book Three of the John Tana trilogy."

“Overtourism” is a word coined by the international news media after rebellions against tourism in several European cities occurred in the summer of 2017. There are many reasons for locals in cities like Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and other localities to demand: “Visitors Go Home.”

Streets are overcrowded, the costs of rent, food and other essentials have exceeded what locals can pay, monuments are desecrated, and beaches are littered and polluted. In short, the benefit of tourism money is outweighed by its burdens.

The focus of the tourism industry has been on the numbers: how many visitors and how much money they spent. The tourism industry and government fail to focus on stewardship of the product that is being sold.

The product is the place: its natural beauty, its culture (here not only Hawaiian but of the many ethnic groups brought to work in the sugar fields), and the aloha spirit of the local population.

Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that crowds and the quality of life in the area and quality of the tourist experience have deteriorated to an unacceptable level. (Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan 2019-2021, hereafter KTSP.)

What is acceptable for Kauai? The KTSP lists 25,000 visitors per month as the acceptable limit. Kauai County agrees with this sustainable capacity limit in its 2018 Master Plan (KMP). The reality is that in the first six months of 2018, the monthly number of visitors to the island averaged 29,300 with June at 33,300 (KTSP).

The KMP envisions an annual growth rate of 4 percent per year. This tracks with the expected growth of world-wide tourism. What is causing this? Cheaper flights, social media, marketing by the tourist industry and governments, increasing populations, and more affluence.

The Kauai Tourist Bureau recognizes the need to limit tourism. Their latest strategic plan states this. It is time “to refocus tourism to responsibly manage the economic activity of Kauai tourism in a sustainable manner while creating memorable experiences for visitors, improving quality of life for residents and ensuring the stewardship of our natural and cultural resources” (KTSP). To this I would add: responsibly manage our aina and retain its aloha spirit.

While this refocus must be applauded, it is the tourist industry’s main goal to increase the numbers: of visitors and the money spent by them. The primary motivator in effectuating management stewardship of this aina must be our local government.

Unfortunately, governments have ignored preserving the values of a place: its beauty, culture and local spirit. They chase higher numbers and dollars.

Tourism is cyclical. It can be affected by natural disasters (Iniki’s devastation as an example) and economic recession (2008). There is also the problem of trashing a destination by visitors. The internet has many examples of this.

Governments and industry often use the cyclical argument as an excuse to do nothing. The reality is that expert projections are that tourism numbers will continue to increase. In 2017, 1.3 billion visitors worldwide and by 2030, 1.8 billion. If government does nothing, we could lose what makes this place great to visit and live in.

The KTSP, as well as international experts, urge that solutions to overtourism must come from collaboration between government, the tourist industry, environmentalists and other stakeholders.

In managing “the place” the local government is the key motivator and must take the lead in this stewardship effort to protect Kauai and make it sustainable. Government must not wait until there is a local citizens’ rebellion as has occurred in other “hotspots” of tourism. We must not lose the aloha spirit which makes Kauai a wonderful place to live and visit.

When I grew up on this island the sugar and pineapple economy dictated and regulated our lives. That economy is gone, replaced by the tourist industry. To keep our place unique, it must be regulated.

The KSTP, pages 16-17, outlines what should be done. (See also KMP pages 163 and 166.) These proposals follow formulas instituted by other jurisdictions. 1) Limit visitor numbers by caps on arrivals and visits to scenic spots. 2) Alternative transportation like shuttle buses to visit specific destinations, such as Haena and Ke’e Beach. 3) Tax tourists by permits to visit places, entry fees, rental car fees, etc. 4) Moratorium on new accommodations, and limit the number of Airbnbs, etc. (The KTSP reports that 1 in 8 Kauai homes is a vacation rental, compared to 1 in 24 statewide. Internationally, this is a huge source of local citizen complaints. Renting to visitors has raised rents and/or ended availability of affordable housing for locals. Other jurisdictions close illegal units, limit allowable usage to X number of days in a year.) 5) Encourage longer visits: statistics show that the stayover visitor spends 15-25 times as much as the cruise ship or tour visitor — and they spend at local businesses. 6) Visitor education.

One glaring problem often reported by destinations is that the visitor does not treat the place like his home. Trashing of a site is commonplace. (Review examples on the internet.) Respect for the people and locality is essential. Iceland has created a visitors’ video and extracted a pledge from tourists to be responsible and respectful. (The KTSP supports this idea.) Education is a two-way street, locals must be educated as to the importance of tourism. It “is the mainstay of Kauai’s economy” (KMP).

Fear that we will destroy the tourist economy by regulating it is often voiced by naysayers. It is a misplaced fear.

To do nothing will destroy the place that is the very product that tourism sells. If we as a community demonstrate by thoughtful regulation and marketing that we are making Kauai a quality place to visit, then people will come. People like to feel exclusive.

We just need to control the visits. It would follow that it will help solve many internal problems: traffic, affordable housing, etc.

I place great stress on local government to take the lead in protecting our unique island home. Too often lack of funding and will to accomplish has produced failure in implementing needed changes.

Though the tourist industry by its KTSP suggests a refocus from marketing to managing this place, there primary motivation in the past has been marketing. Because local citizens elect our local government, they are a prime motivator in ensuring that this place is protected.

By that I mean, we malama the beauty of Kauai, its culture and the aloha spirit of our people by motivating our county government to do so.

This effort to keep our island pono is not a “go it alone” project. Government must embrace and collaborate with the tourist industry, the environmentalists, other stakeholders and the community to avoid the pilikia of overtourism.

The travel industry must stop using our product just for profit. The industry must help protect the place. It appears from the current KTSP that our local bureau has a will to so. It is governments turn to join in the effort.


William J. Fernandez is a resident of Kapaa.

  1. ruthann jones October 21, 2018 6:07 am Reply

    a much better idea for locals…ask tourists to simply send a hefty money order, stay away and await your beautiful post card from Kauai.

  2. kauaiboy October 21, 2018 6:59 am Reply

    “One glaring problem often reported by destinations is that the visitor does not treat the place like his home. ”

    Nonsense. 99% of visitors treat the aina better than the local residents.

    Trashing of a site by local residents is commonplace, and sad.

  3. Suzan Kelsey Brooks October 21, 2018 7:50 am Reply

    I agree with much of this article. However, I’m not seeing much in the news about cracking down on transient accommodations–both legal and illegal– that have been created out of single family homes.
    These often “off the radar” rentals add to the burdens of traffic and over-loaded sewage disposal, while avoiding paying taxes that might be devoted to improving the island. A lack of enforcement of Kauai’s laws and regulation will outstrip any efforts to place legal limits on tourism.

  4. manawai October 21, 2018 8:26 am Reply

    “Streets are overcrowded, the costs of rent, food and other essentials have exceeded what locals can pay….”

    It’s not the tourists who throw trash out their car windows, leave dog doo on the beaches along with truck oil and cesspool pollutants. The worst thing tourists do is use suntan lotion that hurts the reefs, but then so do the many white-skinned transplants who came here to live and have taken up all the housing thereby causing rents to rise and local families to suffer or leave. It’s not the tourists! It’s the transplants! Hypocrisy at its finest!

    1. Kai October 22, 2018 3:42 pm Reply

      We are waiting for you to prove you actually live here. Seems like you are just some hating troll with too much time.
      Guessing white male in a recliner.

  5. RG DeSoto October 21, 2018 2:19 pm Reply

    So…William, what are you proposing? Seceding from the union & replacing it with a dictatorship so you could restrict travel to and from Hawaii? (How’s that working at the US/Mexico border?)
    Unless that is what happens there is absolutely no way to put limits on interstate travel in a free country such as ours that is protected by the constitution. So quit your whining.
    RG DeSoto

  6. rk669 October 21, 2018 4:42 pm Reply

    Tourism is Kauaians only industry! Without tourists we’d all be eating Mangoes,coconuts and Bananas?

    1. D Woods October 24, 2018 1:30 pm Reply

      Yes…we would be eating mangos and bananas and coconuts…. and lettuce, carrots, onions, eggs, milk, cheese, pork, chicken, goat, deer, fish, limu and so on.
      Tourism is NOT the only way to get money.
      Self-sufficiency is farms, plumbers, mechanics, restaurants, carpenters, computer stores and so on!
      Over tourism is ruining it for all…tourists and locals alike!

  7. WestKauai October 22, 2018 6:10 pm Reply

    Hellooo…Transient accommodations outside the hotels and timeshares are for the most part insignificant. Admittedly, Hanalei is out of hand, but other communities have little or no impact. The county continues to approve more hotel and timeshare construction without infrastructure improvements. Therein lies the problem. The thousands of tourists staying in the hotels must take all the same roads to reach the beaches, trails, sightseeing, etc…

    1. D Woods October 24, 2018 1:39 pm Reply

      Limit the cars or at least the rental cars! You will then limit the tourists.
      Catalina Island as well as other smaller islands have done this for decades.
      Why are the rental car company’s allowed to have unlimited amounts of cars allowed on our roads?

  8. james October 23, 2018 6:30 am Reply

    I applaud the letter and agree with the opinion. As to how to legally restrict tourism, the devil is in the details. It must be a multi-pronged approach. As RG pointed out, you can not restrict folks from coming here by law. However, we can limit the number of accommodations by limiting building permits for hotels and resorts. We can limit the number of cruise ships docking here. We also can limit and enforce private accommodations, with no new permits and enforcing existing laws against those who illegally rent rooms or homes to tourists without proper permits. Most tourists will not come if they don’t have a place to stay.

  9. John Humphrey October 23, 2018 8:15 am Reply

    One consequence of the number of visitors that doesn’t get mentioned is the impact on utilities. Water, electricity, trash. Visitors don’t usually pay attention to their use because they are not paying for them directly. Utility companies usually try to control consumption by rate increases. Visitors are going to use as much water and electricity as they want, paying as much as they do for accommodations. So locals pay more as a consequence.
    Unfortunately I think this is another lots of talk, no action debate. Yes we need to limit numbers but how?? Number one. pass a county ordinance forcing Airbnb and BVRO to list the names and addresses of rentals they manage to the county. San Francisco did this and available advertised rentals dropped 35%. In the end I’m afraid the powers that be do not have the will or fortitude to do anything. It’s about the money!

  10. WestKauai October 23, 2018 4:40 pm Reply

    When the County started sending “cease and desist” letters to previously legal “Homestay” owners and made permitting an onerous and expensive proposition, a large number simply stopped operating. The number of VRBO listings for Kauai has dramatically reduced to just a handful…There has been no real effect upon the visitor count. It has, in fact, increased. Blame timeshares and condos within the Visitor Destination Areas…

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