Hawaii’s Earth Day Challenge: Balance Thriving Tourism with Sound Environmental Practices

Having just spent the better part of three months in Hawaii, I found the state doing what it can to encourage environmentally sound practices. There are numerous organizations working to protect native plants, animals, ecosystems and cultural sites. Effective July 2018, the Department of Environmental Services imposed a 15-cent per recyclable bag fee that retailers provide to shoppers. Bike lanes are everywhere, a good thing since traffic is brutal and parking near-impossible to find or, if found, more expensive than midtown Manhattan. Driving in Hawaii is anything but aloha.

But Hawaii is caught in the quintessential Catch-22. Tourism is the state’s lifeblood. Long gone are the days when steamship was the most popular transportation mode to bring mainlanders to Hawaii. Since jet travel’s advent, about 10 million tourists come to Hawaii each year. To accommodate them, environmentally unfriendly high-rise condominiums and luxury resort hotels have sprung up along the coastline and destroyed the islands’ delicate ecosystems and landscapes. Nonstop urban development has displaced poor and lower middle-class neighborhoods which in turn spawned a serious and growing problem – homelessness. Last year, O’ahu’s homeless spiked to 6,924. During the last five years, 373 O’ahu homeless have died on the street.

Earth Day 2020 marks the 50th anniversary that citizens worldwide gather in their respective cities to identify solutions to make the planet more habitable. Perhaps no state faces a greater challenge than Hawaii. Compare the era of Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku a half century ago to island life today, and the changes are dramatic. Hawaii’s skyline, once a breathtaking vision of beach and mountain majesty, is today marred by ugly sprawl.

Immigration is a key variable in Hawaii’s growth, and a reason that the need to build new homes and apartments is constant. A recent analysis found that Hawaii has a large immigrant community, nearly half from the Philippines. About 18 percent of the state’s 1.4 million are foreign nationals, and 16 percent are native-born Americans who have at least one immigrant parent.

On the economic front, however, Hawaii was coming up roses. In 2018, the 10 million tourists set a record. Tourists stayed longer, and spent more than in previous years, a total of $17.8 billion, a 6.8 percent increase over the previous year. Visitor spending generated $2.08 billion in state tax revenue in 2018, an increase of $133.1 million from 2017. Hawaii didn’t exceed 1 million tourists until 1967.

In the last decade, tourism has doubled, an unsustainable trend. Yet, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s data showed that, in a year-over-year comparison, January’s 2020 tourism increased 5 percent. Those visitors spent $1.7 billion on lodging, airfare, car rentals, meals and other sundry expenses. However, the strong January tourism report, broken down by visitor categories, showed what looked like a potentially foreboding trend as I began writing this piece in February. Visitor arrivals from the coronavirus epicenter, China, declined 20 percent. Arrivals from Korea, Japan, Australia, Latin America and Europe all dropped.

Since then, of course, everything changed in Hawaii as elsewhere due to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 23, Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced statewide restrictions on the activities and movements of residents to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Although Hawaii’s economy is being adversely affected, the slowdown might have benefits. Hawaii’s ever-increasing development has left natives struggling to preserve their culture and the environment. To meet tourism’s demand, new hotels are continuously being built and expanded, some of it on sacred ground.

But in the end, natives are, after all, the principal stakeholders in Hawaii’s future, and growth should accommodate their desires to preserve their sacred history.