“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.