VOICES: Airplane travel, too many tourists are environmental problem

Twenty years ago, The Hawaiian chapter of the Sierra Club asked the much better funded Los Angeles/Orange County Sierra Club chapter to help fund an effort to sue the Hawaiian Tourism Authority to produce an Environmental Impact report on the effects of tourism on Hawaii. The lawsuit failed.

Over the years the efforts to establish a reasonable visitor carrying capacity for our islands and limit the increasing numbers of visitors have continued to fail.

Now decades later, the problems in Hawaii are much worse. We were aware then, of the Global Climate Crisis, but we were focused on other conservation and environmental issues. Today, the overwhelming issue facing humanity is what is going to happen to our shared global climate and what kind of world our grandchildren will inherit.

Hawaii is a small state, but per capita, we have a very large carbon footprint. People criticize China because they have the largest greenhouse gas emissions, but per capita, they rank seventh in the world while the United States is first! (twice as much.)

The largest consumer of fossil fuels in Hawaii is airline{s] travel. Greenhouse gas emissions from planes are rising rapidly – they increased by 32% between 2013 and 2018.

While improving fuel efficiency is gradually reducing the emissions per passenger, it is not keeping up with the rapid increase in total passenger numbers, which are projected to double in the next 20 years. Consider the 3.8 million visitors in 2017 from just the western U.S.A.; Hawaii’s biggest tourist market. The carbon footprint of their round trip air travel is roughly like driving a car around the equator — 225,000 times.

Airplane flights to and from Hawaii from the western U.S. produced 2.3 million tons of carbon in 2017. Flights to and from Hawaii from all over the world, produced approximately 6.3 million tons.

To capture that much carbon annually would take about 7.4 million acres of forest, so much more than the total 4.1 million acres of land in the entire Hawaiian islands.

It would help greatly if we increased electric car use, got rid of our monster trucks, and took advantage of public transportation but our greatest problem is tourism.

Tourism is the engine of our economy. It provides us with the great consumer culture: Big Box stores, fancy restaurants, car dealerships, lots of stuff to buy, plenty of jobs. But, almost no one disagrees that tourism has gotten out of hand; interfering and overwhelming our island and our residents’ lives. The biggest gripe is traffic, which, of course, also has a huge carbon footprint. But how many people are aware that there is a big building boom going on the South Shore?

More and more (legal) vacation rental condos are going up, each equipped with big air conditioners and heated Jacuzzis. The Maui County Council is deliberating a Visitor Accommodations Moratorium Bill that will try to stop the explosive growth of tourism, but as long as the Federal Aeronautics Agency (FAA) continues to approve more new flights to Kaua’i, we are going to get more tourists, more burning of fossil fuels, more crowds and more snarled traffic.

Too much tourism is a real threat.

What can we do about it? Stop building more vacation condos, vacation rentals and hotels? Lobby the FAA to stop giving more airline routes to Hawaii? We have got to do something. We owe it to our grandchildren and future generations.


Gordon LaBedz is a retired Family Physician and a former national leader of the Sierra Club as well as a founder of the national Surfrider Foundation. He is a member of Kauai Climate Action Coalition which meets the third Monday of every month at 5pm via zoom. Contact us at Kauaiclimate@gmail.com for link and more information. Be part of the conversation and the solution.

  1. RGLadder37 May 27, 2021 12:23 am Reply

    I’ll agree with the HTA. Tourism since the 1960s have been a contributing part to many people’s lives being better in Hawai’i. When people think of Hawai’i they think of luaus and hula dancers and canoes. So they commercialize Hawai’i and make it for what it is, on stage show to enjoy, then it is back to normal again. I don’t see how they can pay a person like Mufi Hannemann to be a spokesperson for tourism. Also I don’t see how they can pay Bernard P. Carvalho jr. for being a football player at UH in 1979, then try to represent Hawai’i and call it Hawai’i and tourism. The problem is where are the taxes being paid from? Big taxes being paid are from the millionaires in Hawai’i. So many of us on this blog will not hit that mark to care for the big shots in town. If you are a millionaire, why would you concern yourself with a shitty blog going nowhere and become average? No can do. How to become rich and sustain a living for yourself and others you might want, is the more appropriate question. For starters, screw the democrats. Become a republican, and work on it. Then find something useful to do and do it with your whole heart. This is the only answer to why anyone would want to become part of a problem, and never a solution. If I had a million dollars, I would be far away from a blog and some where in Cariibbean Islands or France enjoying myself on all you can eat steak and lobster with mushrooms. And sitting around in the balcony overlooking the gorgeous view. I would not be here on this blog. A waste of time. That is the only answer I can give. On why anyone would want to join a tourism club. No money in the club.

  2. Judie Hoeppner May 27, 2021 5:01 am Reply

    Very interesting and informative article, Gordon. And as an addicted traveler, also hard to hear. In spite of the hardship to so many business’ from lack of tourists, most of us were rejoicing because you could actually drive through Kapaa in a reasonable amount of time. A possible solution would be for the state and county to fund farmers for land remediation so that we could make food production our number one income generator.

  3. Imua44 May 27, 2021 5:11 am Reply

    Of all major industries, tourism leaves the smallest footprint.

    1. Doug May 27, 2021 9:55 am Reply

      Facts please to support your theory?

      1. Manawai May 27, 2021 5:52 pm Reply

        Why don’t you come up with evidence to disprove the claim? Lazy? ignorant?

        1. Guy May 31, 2021 11:30 am Reply

          When presenting a claim, the onus for proof is on the one making the claim.

  4. Mr Greg D Rorris May 27, 2021 6:21 am Reply

    Dr Labedz, no disrespect, but your analogy of the gross carbon footprint vs per capita is flawed. The total carbon footprint, according to https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/carbon-footprint-by-country is over 9B tons for China, and less than 5B tons for the US. Since China has over 3x the population of the US, obviously the per capita rationalization is skewed. Yes, Hawaii’s economy is built on tourism, the education, health systems, and infrastructure are all supported by tourism. Until you can provide solutions that don’t require Hawaiian tourism, your hope for future generations is equally flawed.

    1. RGLadder37 May 27, 2021 7:25 pm Reply

      Do you work in the tourist industry? Or affiliated to it in such a way to pick up a pay. If so, what is it? Do you like your work? My theory is you’re out of work if you don’t have a job in the tourist industry now. If you do, then your work is who you are and you love it. It doesn’t matter what this guy says. The thing about tourism is that jobs are seasonal. That is the problem. Do you like your work in tourism?

  5. Paulo May 27, 2021 7:57 am Reply

    The root of the problem is too many people on the planet. Many of them want to come here. The fact that we have encouraged over-tourism through HTA marketing and allowing more resorts over the years is an unsustainable problem for our environment and for our well being. Funding for the HTA was cut back but next year our government will entertain restoring it. Don’t let them. None of the revenue from the TAT should be used for promotion. It’s amazing it ever was, as if we wouldn’t have had plenty of visitors without it. Disband the HTA now.

  6. Mike May 27, 2021 8:27 am Reply

    You wont have to worry about too many tourists for much longer. Hawaii has effectively priced itself out of the vacation market for a vast number of everyday people.
    As of this morning, Airfare for a couple, for a 10 day vacation from Seattle is: $2795.00 RT. Add a car at todays prices: $1375.00. Now accommodations, a condo or hotel @ $150-$250 a night range which is entry level now you are up to $1500-$2500 average it to $2000.00
    2795.00 + $1375.00+ $2,000.00 = $6170.00. Now food, gas and any tours or restaurants well you ticking $7,000.00 for 2 people for 10 days. Hawaii is no where near a $7,000.00 10 day vacation. Keep in mind now that as you get you wish and tourism slows to a trickle the amount of GET & TAT tax money the state will not collect leaving you locals to pick up the deficit as well as losing employment opportunities of for 35% of the population that depends on tourism for a job! That tax money will be collected like it or not so be very careful what you wish for. You wont like it!!!!!

    1. james May 29, 2021 7:02 am Reply

      The high cost of a Kauai vacation sure doesn’t seem to be an issue for hordes of people based on the influx of tourist packing our Island. I wish your theory was correct but that doesn’t seem to be the case based on statistics from the visitor’s bureau.

  7. Paradise Lost May 27, 2021 9:26 am Reply

    I posted this recently on a different article, but it mostly applies here too. After the Tourists get here they also drive cars around much more than the average person, and the average tourist cars are mostly poor efficiency gas guzzlers (Ford Mustang, Jeep Wrangler).

    Maybe in addition to the below we could require incoming tourists to buy Carbon Offset Credits that at least equal the carbon footprint of their flight + car driving + using AC/Hot tubs.

    But if they forgo car rentals and rely on buses while here give them a discount on their carbon credits. The drawback to this would be difficulty in enforcement, and people renting out their personal vehicles to visitors who don’t want to pay the already high rental fees.

    My previous post:

    I feel like I’m pointing out the obvious here but the best way to cut down on traffic is to not drive cars.

    Take the bus, expand the bicycle infrastructure so it’s easier to get around.

    For example it’s easy to ride from Lihue to Kapaa on the side of the highway, but the shoulder is so narrow on the Wailua to Lihue section that it’s not safe to ride.

    There should be a dedicated trail, away from the highway so that cyclists don’t have to risk their lives ending because a driver wasn’t paying attention, and they don’t have to risk lung cancer from breathing all the exhaust, and to reward them with a pretty view for being so kind as to not clog up the highway with another oversized truck.

    The trail should be safe enough that you can allow your children to ride to the next town without having to worry they’ll die on the way.

    Add a huge rental car tax for people from off island, so that renting a car costs as much as renting an UBER for their whole stay, then provide better bus service so that the tourists can just take buses around instead of clogging up traffic.

    Make the vehicle weight tax progressive, So the more money the driver earns on their income tax they higher their tax, and use that to help cover the costs of improving the bus and bicycle options.

    People using the bus and bicycles have the added bonuses of polluting less, and being responsible for less wear and tear on the roads. We should be incentivizing good behavior.

    Install bicycle and pedestrian overpasses at key points around the east side so that pedestrians don’t have to sit waiting 5-10 minutes for cars just to cross the highway. Make sure the cars get to see how much of a hassle they could be spared if they just got out of the vehicle and walked.

    As an added bonus getting exercise from walking and biking instead of driving boosts serotonin and dopamine, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, improves the cognition capacity of the brain, and makes people much happier and more friendly to their neighbors; Unlike to the people who are crabby bitter and angry because it takes 30 mins to drive from Safeway to House lots on a Saturday morning, and who like to rant about tourists and wanting more roads in the comment section of TGI.

    You can see Braess paradox at work every afternoon in Wailua.



  8. Doug May 27, 2021 9:53 am Reply

    I find it pretty hypocritical that a lot of people support things like the Green New Deal yet seem to forget all about it because they want to fly and drive around Hawaii, or want to use their private jets for transport. And the FAA is approving even more plane routes to Hawaii under the Biden Administration.

  9. YuCalJoe May 27, 2021 9:54 am Reply

    You’ve focused on a micro part of the overall macro problem, human behavior relating to resource management. Blaming tourism alone is like pointing into the night sky and saying “I hate that star!” Kauai is no different than numerous places on earth. For example, the housing boom is straining existing water and wastewater systems in a variety of area in the nation. The increased demand causes the need to expand and build more infrastructure to meet the demand. The problem is that there is only so much water on earth, and we aren’t going to get anymore that what we have. So when a water utility has concerns that they won’t be able to meet demand, and they are restricted on what they can do because of water rights, they have to increase the prices, implement water rationing, and much more. Kauai is already overbuilt. The infrastructure and resources are already strained. So are the financial resources to address the issues. Top this off with the legal inability to say “No. You can’t come here”, and you are where you are now. You live on a highly desirable travel destination, a tropical paradise. Just like the people around Disneyland have been told, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?”. Kauai needs to stop building based on the ability of the infrastructures inability to support to demand. Moreover, increase fees on airfare tickets to Kauai (everyone, not just tourists), increase fees on rental cars, and increase fees on short-term accommodations dedicated to tourism to pay for the operating costs of the island. These things will help fund infrastructure and responsible resource management (including environmental) efforts. You will see reduced flights, reduced rental cars, reduced traffic, reduced tourists, reduced businesses that rely on tourists, and much more. Good solution? Not really. You see? The problem is bigger than tourists.

  10. Numilalocal May 27, 2021 10:48 am Reply

    Another contributing factor – largely ignored – is the number of people who’ve moved to Kauai from other places. The increase in population in the past 40 years isn’t just due to local families having kids

    1. Nah May 27, 2021 8:13 pm Reply

      Doubt it , do your research !

    2. Paradise Lost May 28, 2021 8:59 am Reply

      According to Ka’ina Hull speaking for the County Planning Department, About 50% of population growth on the island is local families having tons of kids, about 45% is International Immigration(most of those are from the Philippines), And about 5% is people from Mainland USA who moved to the Island.

      Somehow it’s that last 5% that seems to stoke the most ire among people who like to get irate about such things.

  11. randy kansas May 27, 2021 10:57 am Reply

    for all of the negative people on here, who did you elbow out of the way when you arrived on the island?

    not in my backyard, typical group of entitled, unhappy people….

    CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything !! ha

  12. joe sanchez May 27, 2021 2:34 pm Reply

    Locals are to blame for much of environmental impact. 4 wheeling on the beaches, trails erosion, bon fires etc. Its easy to blame all evils on the tourists. The tourists aren’t to blame for our sky high domestic abuse here, yet the taxes they pay (GET, TAT, rental car tax) pay for most of our social services. HEY HAWAIIANS its time to look in the mirror. -you are our own worst enemy

    1. Kauaidoug June 5, 2021 10:50 am Reply

      I agree with Joe. We saw during the pandemic a whole lot of activity that the tourists got blamed for done by locals. Before we limit the cars we need to increase the bus service. The east side is a joke when it comes to public transportation. If you’re staying or working at almost any of the hotels from KBR to Kauai Shores you virtually have no access to public transpo not to mention Lydgate Park. We had Kapaa crawl at times during the pandemic which proves how woefully inadequate the highway planning has been for years! We need to rethink this stuff. The online comments of visitor wannabees on various travel blogs were insulting to say the least at times. “I can’t visit my condo so I shouldn’t have to pay the taxes” Kind of stuff.
      The world needs Kauai and Kauai needs the world, just not all at the same time.

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