Hawaii & Alaska
As Hawaii’s visitor numbers return to pre-pandemic levels, policymakers are raising questions about the state’s carrying capacity. Waikiki beaches last week were packed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

HI - Hawaii's Changing Economy Studied To Death? Some Say Hawaii Doesn’t Need More Data Before Acting On Overtourism

Experts say an understanding of the tourist capacity limits for local communities in the islands would help inform policies.

As Hawaii tourism rebounds three years after being effectively shut down during the pandemic, political, community and business leaders are reprising a question central to policy discussions about the state’s most prominent industry: How many tourists is too many?

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick, vice chair of the state’s House Tourism Committee, has sponsored a bill calling for a study of the state’s tourism carrying capacity.

“We know we’ve been at over capacity,” the first-term lawmaker said. “But it’s hard to say what a sustainable carrying capacity would be.”

The effort comes amid growing concerns about illegal vacation rentals, traffic, threats to sea life and environmental degradation.

“This is actually something that the community on all the islands has been asking for for a long time,” Hussey-Burdick said.

Not everyone agrees Hawaii needs a study quantifying what they say is obvious – that the 10.4 million tourists who came to Hawaii in 2019 were too many. Some say action is needed, not more studies.

Still, there’s a consensus that carrying capacity matters. In broad terms, carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of visitors a destination can host without irreparably damaging the environment, infrastructure or community.

Community and environmental groups point to it as a critical issue. So do hotel executives, who say tourism is at risk if the stress of hosting too many people erodes Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources and aloha spirit to a point that tourists don’t want to return or recommend Hawaii.

“The tourism spending that results from these return visits and recommendations, in turn, affects the economic viability of the destination’s visitor industry,” Hussey-Burdick’s bill says.


Read also

How To Better Manage Hawaii's Tourism Hotspots, Honolulu Civil Beat / February 28, 2023


Dan Spencer, a professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management, said an understanding of capacity limits is important in making policy decisions.

“To a certain extent, we have lost sight of it,” Spencer said. “But it’s a basic question that needs to be answered to inform the discussion we’re having about tourism management.”

Kailua Study Finds Widespread Dissatisfaction

Policymakers in Hawaii have long grappled with concerns about overtourism, especially as visitors began venturing outside the usual hot spots such as Waikiki. It’s not all about numbers.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, city officials sought to understand limits for the once-sleepy, beachside neighborhoods of Kailua and Lanikai as they became tourist meccas, recalls Dolan Eversole, the principal investigator for two studies conducted under the auspices of the UH Center for Sustainable Coastal Tourism.

One of those, titled “Socioeconomic Impacts of Tourism in Kailua and Waimānalo, Hawai’i” morphed from looking strictly at carrying capacity to studying resident sentiment toward tourism. At the time, an average of about 15,161 visitors were present on any given day in Kailua/Lanikai and residents had overwhelmingly negative feelings about that.

“It’s a basic question that needs to be answered to inform the discussion we’re having about tourism management.” UH Professor Dan Spencer

More than 65% of residents surveyed in the second half of 2019 agreed or strongly agreed that tourism had increased traffic, increased the cost of living and “destroyed the small town feel,” according to the study. In addition, the same percentage said “vacation rentals have reduced the availability of housing for locals” and “government decisions on tourism issues tend to favor tourists over locals.”

The report got little attention when it was released in June 2020. That was during the peak of the pandemic, when Hawaii was virtually shut down to tourism, and tens of thousands of hospitality industry workers were out of work with the unemployment rate hovering around 17%.

But much has changed since then. Hawaii hosted 9.2 million visitors in 2022, a recovery of nearly 90% of the 2019 numbers. With those numbers, resident sentiment also could be returning to 2019, Eversole said.

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