Repairing coral reefs after boats run aground. Protecting native forest trees from an outbreak of deadly fungi. Patrolling waters for swimmers, harassing dolphins and turtles.
Caring for Hawaii’s unique natural environment takes time, people, and money. Now, Hawaii wants tourists to help pay for it, especially as increasing numbers travel to the islands to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors — including some drawn by dramatic views they’ve seen on social media.
“All I want to do, frankly, is make travelers accountable and have the capacity to help pay for the impact they’re having,” Democratic Gov. Josh Green said earlier this year. “We get between nine and 10 million visitors a year (but) only 1.4 million people live here. These 10 million passengers should help us maintain the environment.
Hawaii lawmakers are considering legislation that would require tourists to pay for an annual license or pass to visit state parks and trails. They are still debating how much they would like.
Last year, the governor campaigned on the idea that all tourists would pay a $50 fee to enter the state. Lawmakers believe that would violate U.S. constitutional protections for free travel and are promoting their parks-and-trails approach instead. Both policies would be the first of their kind for any US state.
Hawaii’s leaders are following the lead of other tourist hotspots that have imposed similar fees or taxes, such as Venice, Italy and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. The Pacific island nation of Palau, for example, charges incoming international travelers $100 each to help manage a sprawling marine sanctuary and promote ecotourism.
State Rep. Sean Quinlan, a Democrat who chairs the House Tourism Committee, said changing traveler patterns is one reason for Hawaii’s push. He said rounds of golf per visitor per day have dropped 30% over the past decade, while foot traffic has increased 50%. People are also looking for ever-obscure sites they’ve seen someone post on social media. The state doesn’t have the money to run all these places, he said.
“It’s not like 20 years ago when you’d bring your family and visit maybe one or two famous beaches and go see Pearl Harbor. And that’s the extent of it,” Quinlan said. “These days it’s like, well, you know, ‘I saw this post on Instagram and there’s this beautiful rope swing, a coconut tree.’
“All these places that didn’t have visitors now have visitors,” he said.
Most state parks and trails are currently free. Some of the most popular are already loading, such as Diamond Head State Monument, which features a trail leading from the bottom of a 300,000-year-old volcanic crater to its summit. It receives 1 million visitors each year and costs $5 per passenger.
A bill currently before the state House would require nonresidents 15 and older visiting forests, parks, trails or “other natural areas on state land” to purchase an annual license online or through a mobile app. Violators will pay a civil penalty, although no penalties will be imposed during the five-year training and transition period.
Residents with a Hawaii driver’s license or other state identification will be exempt.
The Senate passed a version of the measure setting the fee at $50. But the House Finance Committee amended it last week to delete the dollar amount. Speaker Kyle Yamashita, a Democrat, said the bill was “a work in progress.”
Dawn Chang, chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, told the commission that Hawaii’s beaches are open to the public, so people likely won’t be cited there — and such details still need to be worked out.
Representative Dee Morikawa, a Democrat on the committee, recommended that the state create a list of places that would require the license.
Green indicated that he is flexible about where the fee is imposed and that he is willing to support the Legislature’s approach.
Supporters say there is no other place in the U.S. that imposes such a fee on visitors. The closest equivalent might be the $34.50 tax that Alaska charges each cruise ship passenger.
Hawaii’s conservation needs are great. Invasive pests are attacking the state’s forests, including a fungal disease that is killing the ohia, a tree unique to Hawaii that makes up the largest portion of the canopy in native rainforests.
Some conservation activities directly respond to tourism. Harassment of wildlife such as dolphins, turtles and Hawaiian monk seals is a recurring problem. Hikers can unknowingly bring invasive species into the forest on their boots. Snorkelers and boats trample coral, adding stress to reefs already struggling with invasive algae and coral bleaching.
A 2019 report by Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit, estimated that total federal, state, county and private conservation spending in Hawai’i was $535 million, but the need was $886 million.
On the Diamond Head Trail recently, some visitors said the fee would be most reasonable for people who come to Hawaii often or who might stay for several weeks. Some said $50 was too high, especially for those who view nature walking as a low-cost activity.
“For a big family that wants to have experience with the kids, it 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 Kane, an English teacher who comes from Puerto Rico, said she thinks the fee will “sting” some people, but it will be fine as long as it is well advertised.
“If the tourists were informed about it, they would go along with it,” she said. “If it was a $50 surprise fee, it would be a pretty nasty surprise.”
The law says the revenue will go into a “special visitor impact fee fund” managed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Carissa Cabrera, project manager for the Hawaii Green Fee, a coalition of nonprofits supporting the measure, said it would ensure the state has money for conservation regardless of budget changes.
Mufi Hanneman, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which represents the hotels, supports the bill, but said Hawaii needs to carefully monitor how the money is used.
“The last thing you want to see is restrooms that haven’t been fixed, paths or walkways that haven’t been repaved or whatever you’ve done — and year after year it stays the same and people pay a fee,” Hannemann said.