Tourism needs to be sustainable
Tourism-generated revenue is foundational to Hawaii’s economy. A larger share of that wealth must be reinvested to sustain Hawaii — for visitors who come and go, and the kamaaina who remain.
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Tourism is booming.
It’s hard to perceive the bad news in that, unless it’s the perennial, anxiety-ridden question, “Is this a bubble, and when is it going to burst?”
But there are legitimate reasons for concern that the islands could be welcoming more people than they can handle, on a variety of fronts: environmental, infrastructure maintenance and, most alarmingly, basic public well-being. Every headline about a drowning or hiking accident reminds everyone that the more independent- minded tourist may need more safety guidance than they’re getting.
For the long term, industry leaders and policy makers must bolster the capacity to manage the traffic of millions who come through for their week or two in paradise.
For the present, Hawaii’s skyrocketing visitor count must be celebrated for swelling tax coffers, which benefits the full range of state and county programs, not the least of which is Honolulu’s rail project.
Due to the rescue plan state lawmakers approved in a special session last September to fill a gaping fiscal shortfall, the transit project now receives some funds from the transient accommodations tax (TAT), as well as from the general excise tax (GET).
And last week, the industry got the buoyant news that arrivals for February rose to 778,571, a full 10 percent higher than in February 2017. The tourist numbers hadn’t posted a double-digit increase like that for more than five years.
Even more encouragingly, the healthy economy played out further in high spending levels by those visitors. The month’s total of $1.5 billion was up 13 percent year-over-year, and the $215 each visitor spent each day, on average, represents a 4 percent gain.
Other than handing over money at the cash register, what are all these people doing here?
They are going to parks, to hiking trails, to beaches. They are hitting the road, both on Oahu and the neighbor islands. Clearly the complete spectrum of public facilities, from state and county parks to highways and airports, deserves every bit of extra attention that it’s getting.
Moreover, neighbor island jaunts — many of them without a landing in Honolulu at all — are increasing, thanks to additions to airline passenger “lift” statewide.
To help deal with the impact of all this, advocates have made a persuasive argument for increasing the cut of the tourist tax that goes to the three counties other than Oahu. That has won support from state legislators and county officials, with various measures part of the Capitol mix.
A straightforward move to boost that share was proposed in Senate Bill 648. Carried over from the 2017 Legislature, it has passed both houses and seems headed for end-of-session debate.
To cite one point raised in the numerous hearings held on SB 648: Maui runs second to Oahu in tourism load, with about 2.4 million visitors a year, half as many as Oahu.
Maui County Council Chairman Mike White said in his prepared testimony that county coffers receive only 17 percent of tax revenues, combining the TAT and GET. He pointed to data from industry consulting firm HVS indicating that this is the lowest share among peer counties nationally, which on average receive 67 percent of local tax revenue.
There may be other measures emerging, including House Bill 2605. The bill aims to incentivize the counties to get a handle on illegal vacation rentals, offering up to $1 million of TAT funds to each county that sets up a regulatory process.
Statistics can be challenged, but the weight of evidence makes it plain that neighbor-island selection as a destination is on the rise. The visitor count is taking a toll on Oahu parks and facilities as well, so counties in general merit a fatter slice of the revenue pie.
The number of tourists who choose accommodations other than hotels and itineraries other than classic tour packages also illustrates the mounting complexity of Hawaii’s visitor industry. No longer just tour groups that make their way onto tour buses, wrangled by tour guides, more visitors like to strike out on their own.
Many are guided by their app-equipped smartphones, so the industry needs to use apps and social-media channels as well, to advise about water safety, about risks presented on various hiking trails and other concerns that should be top of mind.
Among these concerns are civil defense and emergency response, and it was good to see last week’s emergency management workshop in Waikiki. The missile alert false alarm on Jan. 13 showed a critical need for better protocols to assure visitor safety as much as possible, or to simply keep them informed about what is happening, regardless of the type of disaster that could strike.
The state took in 9.4 million visitors last year, a stunning figure. Tourism-generated revenue is foundational to Hawaii’s economy. A larger share of that wealth must be reinvested to sustain Hawaii — for visitors who come and go, and the kamaaina who remain.