Skip Navigation

The Case for Caps: Overtourism in Hawaii

Image via Honolulu Civil Beat

In January 2022, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) marked the first time Native Hawaiians—kanaka maoli—comprised a majority of its 12-member board of directors. As tourism represents the largest industry in Hawaii, around 21 percent of the state’s economy, this situation provided an opportunity for much greater influence and input from kanaka maoli on the policies that effectively determine the fate of their islands. In particular, the Board was exploring changes in fees, reservations, and education policy. At the heart of these changes, the Board discussed the fundamental issue of their mission: Their primary focus shifted from “marketing and brand management” to “destination management.” Through their Destination Management Action Plans (DMAPs), they aim to “rebuild, redefine and reset tourism’s direction,” with a “focus [on] stabilization, recovery, and rebuilding.” Unfortunately, these goals still fail to address the fundamental problem of tourism in Hawaii: The islands, their environment, and infrastructure cannot support the sheer number of tourists visiting the islands. To address this, the State of Hawaii must cap the number of visitors it allows into the islands.

Within the United States, Hawaii is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Despite its relatively modest population, Honolulu is the seventh most-visited city in the United States, with a record 2.75 million tourists in 2019. At the time, around 216,000 jobs were directly involved in or depended on the tourism industry. The surplus of tourists in 2019 allowed the State of Hawaii to raise over two billion dollars in taxes, but these benefits aren’t without their consequences.

While tourism is the largest sector of the state’s economy, it is also the root cause of many of Hawaii’s fundamental problems. Tourists, who outnumber locals seven to one, severely strain the infrastructure designed for Hawaii’s small population. Perhaps the lack of water best illustrates this phenomenon. Currently, tourism accounts for 44.7 percent of total water consumption. While local residents suffer from droughts and face restrictions on watering their lawns or washing their cars, the tourism industry enjoys seemingly unfettered access to Hawaii’s water supply. The tourism industry also consumes a significant amount of energy. Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa found that at one point, hotels and their guests consumed around 60 percent of Hawaii’s fuel and electricity. Even facing the challenges to the tourism sector during the coronavirus pandemic, in 2020, hotels alone were responsible for 8.7 percent of electricity consumption on the island of Oahu. Tourists are also responsible for propagating an already dire affordable housing crisis. For decades, tourists have participated in illegal short-term vacation rentals, eager to capitalize on the islands’ popularity. Expensive rentals on Airbnb and VRBO, and rising prices of homes, condos and apartments make housing practically unaffordable for local communities. Even with surplus taxation from the tourism sector, most of the money from tourism unfortunately leaves the islands in the hands of shareholders of the Hilton, Marriott, and other multinational hospitality companies.

These issues led resident sentiment to turn on tourism in recent years. During Hawaii’s strict Covid-19 policies, some residents claimed that they “got their islands back” on account of the lack of tourists. But when the islands reopened, many called for continued controls on tourism. In July 2021, the Mayor of Maui, for example, asked airlines to pause their post-lockdown frenzy of flights. An additional 2022 survey found that 67 percent of Hawaii residents believed that their island was “being run for tourists at the expense of local people,” and 66 percent supported halting approval of new hotels, condos, and timeshares. This shift in attitude served as an inspiration for the HTA’s new destination management vision. 

One of HTA’s new destination management policies is educating tourists on the concepts of traveling pono (exploring with care) and mālama (to take care of). This change, however, arguably does nothing substantial to curb tourism’s greater effects. A recent effort by Hawaiian Airlines, for example, displayed a five minute video on being a “good tourist,” full of seemingly obvious reminders such as not approaching endangered species. But recent air incidents (such as Southwest Flight 1380, where passengers didn’t know how to use oxygen masks properly) illustrate that many people likely do not pay attention to the in-flight safety briefings. Most importantly, these “crash courses” fail to consider that even educated tourists are still tourists. 

Education isn’t the only nonanswer being propagated in discussions surrounding tourism  in Hawaii. One popular policy pushed by activists and politicians is the instatement of a tourist “green fee,” a $50 per visitor fee that would fund environmental conservation. This policy has already been implemented in other destinations in the Pacific, but their success is questionable. In the Micronesian nation of Palau, for example, a $100 “Pristine Paradise Environmental Fee” added to the cost of flights had little observable effect on the trend of tourism in Palau. In Hawaii, a territory that receives an average of 195 percent more (or an average of 7.45 million more) tourists a year than Palau, a green fee would certainly bring in revenue–about $400 million based on 2019 numbers–but would not do much to address the sheer number of tourists the islands see every year. 

Ultimately, the problem lies in the proximity that the mainland United States has to the island, facilitating the massive influx of tourists. Even amid a pandemic, visits to Hawaii skyrocketed when tourism reopened. Faced with a lack of hotel rooms and rental cars, tourists even resorted to renting out U-Hauls and camping on the beach, while local residents were ordered to decrease their water usage to provide for the resorts. No matter the barriers, economic or otherwise, tourists will flock to Hawaii. Ultimately, the solution to Hawaii’s tourism problem is for the government to step in and limit the amount of tourists allowed to travel to the islands. 

The most straightforward way for the government to limit tourists would be supplementing the proposed “green fee” with a “green cap” on tourists, a policy that has already been implemented  in Bhutan. The HTA and private organizations are already pursuing some similar policies on a smaller scale by enforcing a reservations policy for beaches and state parks in the islands, limiting the number of visitors to popular sites like Diamond Head. According to the CEO of HTA John De Fries, limiting visits to state parks reduces the daily tourist strain on these locations, “protecting its natural environment and cultural sites.” A similar statewide implementation would reduce the strain on the existing infrastructure. Limiting visitors to Hawaii, however, does raise a cause for concern. As the largest single sector of Hawaii’s economy, a downsizing of tourism would have consequences for the state’s 242,000 employees in tourism, and could send a ripple effect through its connected industries.

Hawaii’s current relationship with tourism is unsustainable for the islands and their residents. But despite the well-intentioned efforts, policies, and proposals of the Tourism Authority and activist groups, these fail to address the root of the problem: tourists put immense pressure on Hawaii’s modest infrastructure–whether it be roads, water, or energy–and educating them or making them pay a fee does not change this. Ultimately, Hawaii must be seen through the words of Maui Mayor Michael Victorino: “a community first and a vacation destination second.” The State of Hawaii must put heavier emphasis on its community, even at the detriment of tourism. Until then, maybe rethink your vacation.