×

The State of Aloha

The Louvre houses the most iconic artwork in the world. It also houses a lot of tourists. In 2018, the Louvre saw a record-breaking 10.2 million visitors. For many this was seen as a sign of a healthy tourist economy. But for others, it was a disturbing symptom.

Last May, workers shut down the art museum. The union argued that the sheer volume of visitors was simply too much and the great works of art could not be protected. As a result of the inadequate facilities, the workers felt “Le Louvre suffoque” (the Louvre suffocates).

Destinations all over the world have become overrun with tourists, and locals are weary. Beaches in Thailand and the Philippines are completely covered with sunbathers. Great European cities like Venice and Dubrovnik are bombarded with cruise ships.

Hawaii is no exception. The onslaught of visitors is a worldwide trend. It’s so prevalent that we now have a word for it: overtourism. Where did all of these visitors come from? How did this happen?

There are many factors for this. Economists and experts in the tourism industry point to a growing global middle class — particularly in Asia. This has resulted in greater demand for flights to new destinations. It leads to more occupancy in traditional hotels and the expansion of short-term vacation rentals. Another factor is social media. People want to get their picture taken at an iconic spot. (Getting that picture of yourself can be tough with all the others trying to do the exact same thing in the background.)

The response from people bearing the brunt of overtourism has been varied. Barcelona has gone to war against its tourists. In 2017, a tour bus pulled up to Camp Nou, the home of the city’s famous soccer team. Suddenly, four masked men boarded the bus. They slashed the bus tires and scrawled graffiti on both sides. “El Turisme Mata Els Barris,” they wrote in Catalan. “Tourism Kills Neighborhoods.”

Slashed tires on bicycles and vehicles became a common occurrence in the city overrun with short-term rentals, clogged plazas and parkways, and bars and restaurants beyond capacity. Pollution is a problem too. This year Barcelona’s port was declared the most polluted in all of Europe.

The people of Barcelona have argued that tourism has degraded their environment and quality of life. This year, the city’s mayor has announced that she would work to reduce the number of tourists visiting the city. She vowed to limit cruise ships, stop the expansion of the airport, and crack down on unlawful vacation rentals. Yes, she wanted less people visiting her city, and she didn’t seem to care about their spending habits.

Venice has taken a similar tactic. Cruise ships have been diverted away from the iconic city on the water. Iceland is also looking at ways to limit the number of visitors. The city of Amsterdam has officially changed its tourism strategy. No longer will it promote the city. It’s simply too much for the city to handle.

Hawaii has not adopted this course even though we all know what overtourism looks like. Every day it seems like Hana Highway is at maximum capacity with rental cars and Jeeps. The town of Hana is overrun with visitors. It’s sad and exhausting at the same time.

This year, the University of Hawaii published a paper written by experts on the travel and tourist industries. The experts agree that we are nearing a “tipping point” with Hawaii’s tourism.

More and more people are coming, but they are spending less. That suggests that we would have to accommodate even more tourists just to maintain the same economic benefit. It is unsustainable for many.

But these are not our elected leaders or even leaders in the industry. We have never in our history had a mayor or governor come close to what Barcelona’s mayor has declared about tourists.

We still depend heavily on tourism for our livelihoods. We keep close tabs on the number of visitors and how much they spend. Through agencies like the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, our government and business leaders market the islands to promote even more people to visit the islands.

Although we are trying to combat illegal vacation rentals, we still want the visitors to come to our islands — even if that means expanding the airports and highways. The thought of a local leader pledging to reduce the number of tourists seems preposterous.

Perhaps that will change. But until then, the endless stream of visitors will continue. Hawaii suffoque.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”