Tourism: How Much is Too Much?

I got a note the other day from a reader who asked why I don’t write more about Hawaii. That’s a fair point. I guess my excuse is that Hawaii has been home to me for so long that I don’t think of it as an exciting destination. To me, it’s just home. However, I hereby resolve to give you more interesting material about these islands.

For example, for the first time in my memory, people here are talking about tourism differently than ever before. The question now is not “How can we attract more tourists?” These days the question is “How many tourists are too many?”

Fifty years ago, my former boss, Frank Fasi, the Mayor of Honolulu at the time, was the first and only elected official Hawaii to propose a hotel room tax. Well, all hell broke loose. The hotel and tourism industries wailed that the mayor was going to kill the Golden Goose and, hoping to dispose of this problem at its core, they hand-picked and then supported candidates to run against Frank.*

He was absolutely right, of course. Tour buses chew up our roads, our waste water facilities are taxed and have to be expanded, and the rental cars cause traffic issues. I recently saw a number that shocked me: On any given day here on this island (Maui) alone, between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., there are 11,000 rental cars driving around and adding to the traffic congestion on this small island.  Statewide, we’re now getting more than 10 million visitors annually.

Believe it or not, Hawaii can be a dangerous place for tourists. They wander off hiking trails and get lost. They go snorkeling and accidentally inhale seawater and choke. They go swimming too far out or at dusk or in murky water and have an unpleasant encounter with a shark.

We do our best to protect them. Each county government provides lifeguards at the many beach parks on all the major islands. There is a special unit within each county fire department . . . men who go out looking for lost hikers.

There are a number of guidebooks available and most of them are responsible and provide good advice. One, however, is to be avoided. Maui Revealed has been criticized for years because of its lack of consideration for local residents. The book is notorious for directing visitors to shortcuts when going to see natural attractions. A stream of tourists opening gates and tramping across private property is not the way for visitors to endear themselves to the local population. If you have a copy of Maui Revealed (or Kauai Revealed or the Big Island Revealed) trash it!

* It didn’t work. Frank was mayor here for 22 years.