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Hawaii residents support limits on tourism, survey finds

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                                 Tourists coming back to Waikiki. Beachgoers in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.


     Tourists coming back to Waikiki. Beachgoers in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

                                Visitors hit the beach Tuesday in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.


    Visitors hit the beach Tuesday in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.

As island tourism continues to rebound heading into summer, a new survey of residents finds support for better regulation of tourism, including more government controls that could lead to limiting numbers at popular destinations across the state and charging higher user fees to offset tourists’ impact across the islands.

“The big lesson here is that people want the state to be directly involved in managing tourism,” said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, which commissioned the survey released Tuesday. “It’s not that there is a tremendous amount of love for the state. But I don’t think people trust the industry to manage itself regarding a lot of ideas that seem like they have a lot of public support, including hot-spot management, increasing fees for tourists to pay for a lot of things and support for a state agency that would manage tourism.”

The online survey of 700 respondents was conducted by Anthology Research between April 16 and May 3 and had a margin of error of 3.7%.

The results — which Moore characterized as “nuanced” — are an indication of how island residents feel following the bumpy past few years for tourism. Hawaii’s largest economic driver saw a record 10 million visitors in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the state’s economy, leading to the country’s worst economy and highest unemployment rate at various points in 2020.

“Not to have everything overcrowded was quite pleasant,” Moore said. “What you see in the survey is that folks are really struggling with this reality. There really is this desire to make a change to manage it more effectively, with people understanding tourism is our No. 1 industry.”

A majority of residents — 52% — would prefer to limit the number of visitors. A whopping 78% would like to see visitors charged entry fees and/or required to make reservations at parks or other “hot spots” during peak times.

The survey did not designate specific hot spots, but Moore said they generally would mean popular beach and park destinations on Oahu such as Diamond Head and parts of the North Shore, among other locations.

Gov. David Ige and others frequently have pointed to stricter regulations at Haena State Park on Kauai’s north shore as a potential model for a new type of tourism after flooding and landslides in 2018 temporarily cut off the region.

Now parking is regulated at Haena State Park, and volunteers provide information on the history of the area.

Some 38% of respondents to the UH survey support rental car surcharges as a way to pay for tourism impacts, compared with 19% who are opposed.

And 40% would support so-called “green fees,” or visitor taxes for natural-­resource protection, compared with 18% who oppose them.

Respondents sent the message that they want both the state and Hawaii Tourism Authority involved in better regulating tourism rather than simply marketing Hawaii to more tourists, Moore said.

Roughly 80% said the state should “strongly” or “somewhat” regulate tour operations in public parks, impose strict green-energy requirements for resort areas and test some tourism businesses for accuracy of cultural/historical information.

And about 75% of respondents want regulations on vacation rentals outside of resort areas.

“People want a lot more hands-on regulation, control,” Moore said. “There are very few who want to let the market dictate what happens. And there’s definitely support for strict regulation of vacation rentals. People feel they want a little more control over what is happening in their neighborhoods.”

While the state Legislature last session exercised more economic control over the HTA by restricting its funding stream, residents want the HTA to play a role in regulating tourism, rather than just marketing Hawaii to the world, Moore said.

A plurality of 35% of respondents would both keep the HTA and also increase its authority. And the idea of a “permanent tourism advisory council system” made up of residents and industry officials was supported by 34% of respondents, compared with 15% who oppose the idea.

A plurality of 45% said, “Depends How It’s Done.”

“They want a combination of enforcement and new thinking — 35% actually want to give HTA more authority, which could be some sort of enforcement authority,” Moore said.

“People are more interested in the regulation management part of it than marketing,” Moore said. “They’re not sure we need to market tourism more, but manage it better.”

A slight majority — 52% — opposed casino gambling in Hawaii.

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