Tourism. Too Much of a Good Thing?

For years, Hawaii’s economy has been described as a three-legged stool: agriculture, the military, and tourism. But that’s changed. The military presence here is significant, of course, but not nearly what it once was. Hawaii’s last sugar plantation was here on Maui and, after almost 150 years of continuous operation, it closed for good this past December. Pineapple is still grown here, but the market for canned pineapple is a fraction of what it once was and with fresh fruit coming to mainland U.S. markets from Latin America, the fruit we grow is pretty much for local consumption now.
That leaves tourism.

A lot of people here are starting to worry that the State’s tourism officials keep pushing for more and more visitors while paying only lip service to the impact all these people are having on our environment.
Back around the mid-1970s, when I was part of the Honolulu City administration, I represented the mayor at a brief ceremony planned by the Hawaii Visitors Bureau at the Honolulu airport to welcome the one millionth visitor for the year–a real milestone at the time.
This year–I haven’t looked it up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right–that number will be in excess of eight million. Putting that into perspective, the total number of local residents on all six populated islands is about 1.4 million.
The impact of all those visitors is significant. Two obvious examples: heavy tour buses and thousands of rental cars beat up our roads and–I know this is an unappealing topic–all that sewage has to be collected, treated twice and pumped out into the ocean.
There are other concerns of which most of us are unaware. Just one example: all those tourists are slathering themselves with sunscreens, many of which contain chemicals oceanographers at the University of Hawaii say come off in the water and are threatening our coral reefs.
Tourists get into trouble in the ocean or while hiking and that, in turn, means the various county governments need to hire more lifeguards for our beaches and have more rescue crews on stand-by for the hikers who slip and fall or get lost. The State is building a $230 million multi-story structure adjacent to the Maui airport that will accommodate the rental car companies and have public parking. The only runway at the Maui airport needs to be rebuilt and extended at a staggering cost. Why? To accommodate bigger planes bringing more visitors.
Is there a tipping point out there somewhere? When, if ever, do we reach the point that we just can’t handle any more visitors? And if there is, how would we stop them from coming?
Someone is going to have to figure it all out.