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Column: Better tourism with visitor green fees

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  • Emelia von Saltza

    Emelia von Saltza

  • Jack Kittinger

    Jack Kittinger

The coronavirus pandemic has decimated our tourism sector, bringing visitor arrivals to an all-time low and resulting in losses of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Prior to the pandemic, concerns about over-tourism and the environment brought conservation and business leaders together, collaborating and unified around a common truth: we cannot disentangle our environment from our economy.

The pandemic has revealed how reliant we are on our tourism sector. Now is the time to rethink how we rebuild this vital pillar of our economy, which employs so many of our community members. Rebuilding tourism around a culturally grounded, environmentally responsible, and socially respectful model could offer substantial benefits as we begin to think about reopening our economy.

One solution that has emerged focuses on an innovative approach that other places like Palau and the Galapagos have used to great advantage: a visitor green fee. A green fee paid by visitors supports local conservation efforts and improves the visitor experience by protecting the environment that our visitors enjoy and our residents rely on.

This idea was gaining momentum in our Legislature prior to the COVID-19 recess. Recently, a version of this has been put in place in Kauai in the form of nonresident permits for beach parks. Where it has been implemented in other geographies, it has strong support among visitors. In the Galapagos, for example, the implementation of a $100 visitor fee did not impact visitor arrivals; in fact, many surveyed visitors support a higher green fee.

As our political leadership weighs options for rebuilding our economy, we suggest they consider piloting a visitor green fee program. With unemployment soaring, this could provide the funding needed for environmental stewardship initiatives, resulting in the creation of green jobs. Other places that we compete with are considering this approach. A proposal in New Zealand seeks to create a $1 billion nature-based workforce, creating 7,000 jobs over three years that invest in tourism’s main draw: nature.

Looking beyond initial federal stimulus, this could provide sustained funds to support a resilient and diversified economy that includes nature-based tourism. The green jobs sector is one of Hawaii’s bright spots in our innovation economy — a strength that we can build on to secure the ecosystems and resources that sustain visitors and residents alike.

A visitor green fee program could also help get visitors engaged in Hawaii’s recovery, building diverse revenue streams from tourism, managing access to sensitive sites, and generating more awareness and and responsibility to protect and preserve our environment. A fee or permitting program coupled with a visitor engagement system (for example, an app) could also enable visitor tracing to ensure their safety and that of our communities. We are already screening visitors upon entry. A phone-based app that engages visitors to better manage their impact on our resources and communities — while keeping visitors and communities safe — could be a win-win solution.

In the past year, our community has experienced the costs of both over-tourism and under-tourism. Now is the time to put into place mechanisms to ensure that tourism is rebuilt responsibly. We must look beyond the current crisis and seize the opportunity to develop a balanced tourism model that ensures our economic security and protects our precious and irreplaceable natural resources. A vibrant and responsible tourism sector is a vital part of our rebuilding from the pandemic. It is our collective kuleana to rebuild the sector around our community’s core values of shared responsibility, sustainability, and healthy communities.

Jack Kittinger and Emelia von Saltza are part of Hawaii Executive Collaborative’s CHANGE initiative.

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