Repairing coral reefs after boats run aground. Protecting native forest trees from a killer fungus infestation. Patrol waters for swimmers who may be harassing dolphins and turtles.
Caring for Hawaii’s unique natural environment takes time, people and money. Now Hawaiian tourists want to help pay for it, especially as increasing numbers are traveling to the islands to enjoy its outdoor beauty — including those lured by dramatic scenes they’ve seen on social media.
“What I would like to do, honestly, is the ability to help hold travelers accountable and pay for the impact on them,” Democratic Gov. Josh Green said earlier this year. “We get between nine and one million visitors a year (but) we only have 1.4 million living here. Those 10 million passengers should help us maintain our environment.
Hawaii lawmakers are considering legislation that would require tourists to pay for a year-long permit to visit state parks and trails. They are still debating how much to charge.
The governor campaigned last year on the platform of charging all tourists a USD 50 fee to enter the state. Legislators think this violates U.S. constitutional protections for free travel and have promoted their parks and trails approach instead. Any policy would be the first of its kind for any US state.
Hawaii’s leaders are following the example of other tourism hotspots that have imposed similar fees or taxes, such as Venice, Italy and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. For example, the Pacific island nation of Palau charges international travelers USD 100 to help manage a sprawling marine sanctuary and promote ecotourism.
State Rep. Sean Quinlan, the Democrat who chairs the House Tourism Committee, said changing travel patterns are one of the reasons behind Hawaii’s push. According to him, the number of golf rounds per tourist has decreased by 30 percent in the past decade, while hiking has increased by 50 percent. People are also looking for once-obscure sites that they’ve seen posted on social media. The state does not have money to manage all these places, he said.
“It’s not like 20 years ago when you bring your family and you hit one or two famous beaches and you go to see Pearl Harbor. And that’s the extent of it,” Quinlan said. “These days it’s like, well, you know, I see this post on Instagram and there’s this beautiful rope swing, a coconut tree.’
He said, ‘There are visitors in all the places where there are no visitors now.
Most state parks and trails are currently free. Some of the most popular are already charged, such as the Diamond Head State Monument, which has a path leading to the summit from the floor of a 300,000-year-old volcanic crater. It receives 1 million visitors every year and costs USD 5 for each passenger.
A bill currently before the state House would require nonresidents 15 and older to purchase an annual permit online or through a mobile app to visit a forest, park, trail or “other natural area on state land.” Violators will pay civil penalties, although the penalties will not be imposed during the five-year education and transition period.
Residents with an air driver’s license or other state identification will be exempt.
The Senate passed a version of the measure that set the fee at US$50. But the House Finance Committee amended it last week to remove the dollar amount. Speaker Kyle Yamashita, a Democrat, said the bill “is a work in progress.”
Dan Chang, chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, told the committee that Hawaii’s beaches are open to the public, so people will not be cited there — and that such details still need to be worked out.
Committee’s Democrat Rep. De Morikawa recommended that the state create a list of places that require licensing.
Green has indicated that he is flexible about where the fee is levied and that he is willing to support the Legislature’s approach.
Proponents say there is no other place in the U.S. that charges visitors the same. The closest equivalent to the USD 34.50 tax may be Alaska’s per cruise ship passenger fee.
Hawaii’s conservation needs are great. Invasive insects are attacking the state’s forests, including a fungal disease killing the ohia, a tree unique to Hawaii that makes up the largest part of the canopy in native wet forests.
Some conservation work directly responds to tourism. Harassment of wildlife such as dolphins, turtles and Hawaiian monk seals is a frequent problem. Hikers can unknowingly bring invasive species into the forest on their shoes. Snorkelers and boats trample coral, adding stress to reefs already struggling with invasive algae and coral bleaching.
A 2019 report by Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization, estimated that total federal, state, county and private spending on conservation in Hawaii was USD 535 million but the need was USD 886 million.
Recently on the Diamond Head Trail, some visitors said the fee makes the most sense for people who come to Hawaii often or stay for several weeks. Some said USD 50 was too high, especially for those who see hiking through nature as a low-cost activity.
“For a big family that wants to have an experience with kids, that would be a lot of money,” said Sarah Tripp, who was visiting Hawaii with her husband and two of their three children from Marquette, Michigan.
Katrina Cain, an English teacher from Puerto Rico, said she thought the fee would “sting” some people but would be fine as long as it was well advertised.
“If tourists are informed about it, they will be fine with it,” she said. “If that was a surprise USD 50 fee, it would be a very nasty surprise.”
The law states that proceeds go to a “Visitor Impact Fee Special Fund” managed by the state Department of Lands and Natural Resources.
Carissa Cabrera, project manager for Hawaii Green Fees, a coalition of nonprofit groups supporting the measure, said it would ensure the state has money for conservation despite budget swings.
Mufi Hanneman, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which represents hotels, supports the bill but said Hawaii should carefully monitor how the money is used.
“The last thing you want to see is fixed toilets, trails or paths that haven’t been maintained or what have you — and years later, it’s going to be the same and people are paying fees,” Hahnemann said.
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