Hawaii has always been a go-to destination for travelers—and many Hawaiian residents are used to it. But since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this spring, there's been a rush of tourists that has rattled even the most hardened residents.
Hawaii is currently on track to surpass its 2019 tourism numbers, despite the state only being fully opened since July 8. Since the quarantine restrictions were lifted, Hawaii has seen nearly 200,000 self-described tourists arrive on their shores.
These numbers have led to a host of issues like traffic congestion, more garbage and lack of transportation resources. A lack of rental cars have even led some tourists using U-Hauls to get around. Hawaiian government officials and the tourism boards are scrambling to solve the overtourism issues, which experts claim won’t level off until 2022.
“We’re working toward more mindful and, ultimately, regenerative tourism where visitors take the time to know each island and the local culture and community," said Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, chief brand officer of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, via email. “As tourism starts to recover, we encourage travelers to be open-minded and respectful as we believe that when visitors travel mindfully and make a positive impact, they’ll have a more enriching experience.”
Here are four ways Hawaii is dealing with the recent influx of tourism to its islands.
Increasing fees for out-of-state tourists
Snorkeling the translucent waters of Hanauma Nature Bay now comes with a heftier price tag. According to the Associated Press, the entrance fee for out-of-state visitors has increased from $12 to $25.
The increased entrance fee has nothing to do with punishing tourists and more to do with preserving the natural habit of the area. According to Honolulu conservation groups, the nine-month shutdown led to clearer waters and the return of wildlife to the coasts.
“We saw how dramatically Hanauma Bay healed during the pandemic when access to the public was closed. We want to preserve the healing by minimizing human impacts, while at the same time ensuring that there are sufficient resources to maintain the bay and its facilities,” said Honolulu City Council Chairman Tommy Waters, who represents the district that includes the bay, via the Associated Press.
Read more: How to visit Hawaii without totally destroying it
Currently, Hanauma Bay is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and has a cap of 1,000 visitors per day on the days it's opened. All reservations must be made online. According to the AP, attendance was roughly around 3,000 visitors daily in 2019.
In Maui, officials are debating implementing a “visitor impact fee” to fund services needed to combat increased visitors' burden on the island.
"Places like the Galapagos, it's expensive to get there. Galapagos, you would have to pay an extra $400 for impact fees if you're visiting the Galapagos," Maui County Councilman Shane Sinenci said during a press conference via ABC7 News.
Hawaii counties are also considering a 3% hotel room tax increase. The current hotel tax is 15%. The increase would make Hawaii one of the most expensive places to visit in the country. Las Vegas has a hotel room tax of 13.35%, while San Francisco charges 14% and New York City 14.75%.
"We feel that visitors can and should contribute to helping to preserve our natural resources, especially those who visit our parks, hiking trails, beaches, etc. while in Hawai‘i," said the Tourism Board of Hawaii. "Tax decisions are made by the governor, mayors, legislators and council members, as the state and counties can determine entrance and parking fees for visitors at parks to help pay for safety, upkeep, and reinvestment in those locations.”
Maui mayor requests tourism pause
Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino is calling for a general pause of tourism to the island. The first-term mayor reportedly met with airline executives to request a brief stoppage of passengers to the overpopulated destination.
"I have been talking with different airlines and … we're asking for just a pause, if you want to use that term," Victorino said during a press conference on June 29. "We don't have the authority to say stop, but we're asking the powers to be to help us …
"I want to remind the visitors that Maui is a community first and a vacation destination second.”
Victorino’s pleas will likely do little to curb the influx of tourists. Based on the state of Hawaii COVID-19 travel portal, nearly 80,000 passengers came via United Airlines, while Hawaiian Airlines flew in over 60,000 and Southwest nearly 50,000 passengers in July alone.
Alex Da Silva, the spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines, said the airline carrier is interested in working in tandem with Hawaiian leaders to find a solution to the tourism concerns.
“As Hawaii’s hometown airline, we both live and work here and are conscious of the strain on our infrastructure, natural resources and communities posed by a rebound in visitor arrivals, especially when businesses still face operational restrictions associated with COVID-19,” Da Silva said in a statement via The Star Advertiser. “But we know that visitors are also the engine of our economic recovery and future diversification.”
Read more: Historic Hawaii: exploring the stories of Moloka‘i and Lana‘i
New shuttle bus service
A new shuttle bus service, subsidized by the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau and running from the Kahului Airport to big resorts around the island, is being tested.
The two-week pilot program will aim to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and decrease traffic congestion, which has only gotten worse since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted on the islands. The program is slated to end on July 17, but it could run throughout the rest of the summer if successful.
“Our hope is that it becomes so popular with the visitors that we can continue it through the summer and then it will help with the whole community versus visitor relationship too,” said Leanne Pletcher, Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau Director of Public Relations and Marketing to Hawaii News Now.
According to Hawaii News Now, the “Maui Aloha Shuttle” will make three trips each day using coaches provided by Polynesian Adventure Tours. Rates are $50 for a one-way trip to West Maui, $35 for children ages 4-12; $35 to Wailea and $20 for kids 4-12. Children three and younger are free. Shuttle bus tickets can be purchased at the airport.
Read more: Spelunking Kazumura Cave, the world's longest lava tube
Increased law enforcement on Hana Highway
The 64-mile road to Hana, better known as the Hana Highway, is a major tourist attraction and has only gotten more popular since tourism has resumed. The winding road filled with picturesque views of waterfalls and jagged coastline entices many visitors to stop for a picture. However, here lies the problem.
The Hana Highway is also the main road Maui residents use. High tourist traffic not only leads to congestion but negatively impacts residents trying to live their lives.
“You have 40 to 50 cars piling up at these traffic lights and then embarking bumper to bumper along the Road to Hana, and when these sets of cars come upon the bridges where there are people illegally parked it creates scenarios of full stoppage,” said Hana resident and Hana Highway Regulation Administrator Napua Hueu to KHON2.com. “We have residents who have sent in videos of them being stalled at a bridge for up to 30 minutes.”
In response to resident pleas, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) has installed approximately 70 “No Parking” signs along the most popular areas on the Hana Highway.
According to a Hawaii Tourism Authority press release, the signs also warn drivers about the $35 parking fine and $200 surcharge for illegally stopping on a state highway.
Mayor Victorino’s office reported that between June 1 and June 23, the Maui Police Department issued 389 parking citations and 83 warnings to violators on Hana Highway between Haiku and Hana town.
You might also like:
When to visit Hawaii
17 best places to visit in Hawaii
Circling the island of Hawaii: a pilgrimage to Mother Nature