Sunday, May 27, 2001

Hanauma Bay, 1998


How much is too much?

By Cynthia Oi

SIXTY YEARS AGO, Hanauma Bay was a pristine crescent of sand and rocky coastline, its turquoise waters and coral reefs hemmed by rugged cliffs. The few who braved the switchback trail through tangles of kiawe were rewarded with the splendor of tranquility.

In the decades that followed, as tourism began to extend out of Waikiki, a park was created, the trail was paved and asphalt laid for a parking lot and a road down to the beach.

With the improvements came more tourists and residents. Reefs were blasted away to create more swimming areas. Picnic tables and restrooms were installed.

By the late 1970s, tourists began to dominate the park, drawn by the aquatic wildlife and remoteness. In the 1980s, they came by the busload, so many that trams shuttled them up and down the road, the trail too narrow for their numbers. Soon the sea life was threatened. Sewage removal became overwhelming. Litter, garbage and tanning oils polluted ocean and shore.

Through all of this, the state and city governments tried to cope with the problems. They declared Hanauma a nature preserve, banned fish feeding and tour buses, closed the bay one day out of the week and even charged admission.

Today, after years of community debate, the city is constructing an education center on the cliff, hoping that by requiring first-time visitors to watch a video before they head to the beach, they would learn to protect the bay's environment. Critics say the building itself degrades the park, but its removal would not restore Hanauma to its isolated beauty. There's no way to turn away the more than 3,000 tourists who go there every day.

The situation is a cautionary tale as the state begins to examine the effects of further development of tourism in Hawaii. Called a capacity study, the $1.2 million project will involve the visitor industry as well as cultural and environmental organizations, all of whom agree that such an analysis is crucial to the state's economy and overall well being. It will evaluate the kinds of tourism Hawaii will offer, the demands on infrastructure -- roads, sewage systems, water resources -- the environment and the community.

Five years ago, when this photo was taken, tourists routinely gave in to the temptation to walk on the reef. Today, trodding on the reef is forbidden, but with thousands of visitors per day, "reef walking" still occurs.

Seiji Naya, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, says tourism has reached a plateau and the study will point the way for the industry's future beyond current marketing efforts.

Cultural groups believe the project will allow them an opportunity to curb tourism's effects on land use and social conditions.

Environmentalists welcome the study because it will examine the tolls the industry takes on natural resources.

Industry and hotel leaders are eager to enhance visitor experiences so the market doesn't get stale.

Hawaii isn't alone in recognizing the need to analyze tourism growth. Officials at national parks are searching for solutions as they face exploding attendance. At the Grand Canyon, for example, the National Park Service has banished private vehicles to reduce air pollution and the need to pave parking lots. At a recent environmental conference in Honolulu, business and government leaders from Asian and the Pacific shared ideas for preserving their cultural heritage and natural environments while maintaining a visitor industry.

Tourism has long been a contentious issue in Hawaii. Limited land and water coupled with spectacular scenery, a unique environment and an awareness of cultural preservation often placed the industry at odds with part of Hawaii's population.

One industry state

Yet, tourism pays the bills; it accounts for 30 percent of Hawaii's income. But it is an unstable industry, subject to the vagaries of world economics as witnessed by the financial downturn in Japan and the subsequent drop in Japanese visitors.

Some contend that putting so many of Hawaii's eggs in tourism's basket is foolish and Naya hopes the study will help identify other economic bases the industry can build on. He says "we have reached the limit of what is known as product cycle." After rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s, "tourism has reached saturation and the growth rate has flattened."

Bob Fishman, chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, also recognizes this: "We cannot continue to grow the visitor industry in a linear fashion. After a while, we erode the essence of what people consider to be attractive about Hawaii."

Those are encouraging words to Jeffrey Mikulina, executive director of Sierra Club in Hawaii. That the capacity study is being done represents a shift in thinking among industry leaders and government officials, he says.

"A couple of years ago, when the HTA floated a strategic plan for tourism, it was all about growth. But now it seems there's some action to take a look at what these islands can handle."

Sierra Club's support is notable because last year it sued the HTA, asking that it be required to perform an environmental assessment on the effects of increased tourism. Although the suit will remain in place, Mikulina believes that if the study is "not just a justification for more growth," it will be a useful tool.

"But it is essential for residents and Hawaii's environment that we look at real tangibles, like impact on water supply, on endangered species, alien pests, traffic, coastal areas."

Road map for future

Pearl Imada Iboshi, the state chief economist who will shepherd the study, says environmental measures will be a large part of the project: "Our goal is to produce a document which would help us strategically plan for the future. We need to look at what will be required if we want to continue to grow and decide as a community what we're willing to do."

It may be difficult to quantify what she calls "the cultural thing," the perception, real or not, that tourism erodes cultural values of Hawaiians and ignores local sensitivities.

Naya says such subjective issues cannot be measured, but are important because a good relationship between resident and tourist is necessary.

Henry Curtis, executive director Life of the Land, also sees a need to deal with the matter. "The local culture can have a certain number of tourists come and still have a healthy interaction, but if overwhelmed, it begins breaking down."

Linda Delaney, a Hawaiian cultural expert and president of Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, believes that Hawaiian sensitivities are often slighted because they are difficult benchmarks to establish by Western standards.

"But if there are people who are sensitive to what Hawaii is and what it should be, they should be sharing our pain. It just requires listening more closely."

Delaney says the study should take into account Hawaiian traditions, such as gathering. She is wary because "studies usually tell you how to do what you want to do rather than tell you don't. We just have to have more opportunities to say don't."

Preserving the culture

She and Curtis believe that not everything about Hawaii or Hawaiians should be offered up to tourists.

"There needs to be places where the culture can function without being a zoo scene, where culture simply exists without spectators with binoculars and cameras taking pictures," Curtis says.

Kumu hula Leina'ala Heine gets angry when the industry uses native traditions to sell tourism. Particularly vexing was the May Day giveaway of lei on the mainland and in Asia. The lei isn't a floral display, she said. "The original lei was a child holding on to the mother's neck. That's what it symbolizes, not this come-to-Hawaii-and-spend-your-money thing."

She sees Hanauma Bay as an example of taking a resource from Hawaiians for tourism. "And now they want to develop the Kaiwi coast, put in the parking lot for the tour buses. Do we not have enough areas for the tourists?"

Fishman acknowledges that views like Heine's aren't unusual: "There is a significant part of our population that isolates itself intellectually and geographically from the visitor industry."

He points to Molokai residents as an example. "They are not interested in any major hotel infrastructure or other investments other than the kinds of things that preserve health and safety and the beauty of the community."

Murray Towill, president of the Hawaii Hotel Association, warns that any constraints on the industry will interfere with the market place. "There clearly must be a balance, not blanket restrictions like building heights."

The overall problems of urban development, he says, "can't be laid on tourism's doorstep. But we've also reached a point where we all feel impacts as residents so it's time to take a look at those."

Curtis sees a tourism as a part of a larger problem in Hawaii, that of a lack of a diversified economy. Naya says tourism can be a net to capture other industries, an idea Curtis endorses.

For example, by building a health and wellness segment into the industry, Hawaii could attract a visitor drawn to fitness activities. At the same time, agricultural or ocean-product interests could create health goods and build a market through this segment.

Sharing the mana

The study, which Iboshi says will be completed by next summer, will not be an indelible blueprint for tourism. But Mikulina hopes that it establishes a base for planning.

"We should turn on the headlights to see where we're going before we hit the accelerator."

Curtis worries new state leadership will reject the project. "The greatest danger, because we're about to have a change in governors, is that the study will be done, then shelved."

Despite the problems tourism brings, Curtis feels visitors benefit from their experiences because of another intangible, what Hawaiians call mana, or power.

"It is so intense it that it draws the right kind of people here. I like to think that anyone who comes to Hawaii will leave as a better person."

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