Measuring Tourism Impacts in Windward O'ahu

Aug 1, 2019

Hawaiʻi is expected to see its 10 millionth visitor this year. The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority says in the first half of 2019, tourist arrivals were up by 4 percent even while visitor spending fell. Communities statewide are feeling the growing presence of tourists -- at local beaches and on the roads. Now, University of Hawaii researchers are asking how precisely are visitors affecting local neighborhoods – like those in Windward Oahu.

Tourists in Hawaiʻi are no longer confined to resort hotspots like Waikīkī or Ko Olina. They’ve now discovered once quiet neighborhoods, including Lanikai.

Thomas Cestare is a long-time Lanikai resident and the community association’s president. He says tourism is taking a toll here.

“I don’t want you to get the idea that we don’t want tourists, cause that’s really not the case. If they’re having fun and it’s great for our state,” says Cestare. “But at some point we have to come to grips the numbers and where we’re going to put these people, and where we’re going to park, and what we’re going to do with the trash.”

Such questions are commonly asked by residents statewide, but now UH researchers are looking for hard data. Dolan Ebersole, extension agent with the UH Sea Grant Program, is leading the study.

“While it’s obvious that there are some economic benefits to having increased visitors, there’s also hard to gauge impacts to the local resources,” says Ebersole. “So we’re asking people through a series of surveys, what their sentiment is, where they see problems related to the visitor industry, whether it's traffic or parking or all of the above.”

Ebersole is surveying both visitors and residents in Kailua, Lanikai, and Waimānalo. The research aims to develop recommendations for the city on how to better manage tourism on the Windward side.

“I think what we’re learning now is visitors – and this is true islandwide if not statewide – is visitors are largely completely unregulated -- meaning they can go wherever they want, whenever they want,” says Ebersole.

Some residents worry the crowds of visitors are changing the character of their communities.

Waimanalo resident Kukana Kama-Toth says she doesn’t even leave home on the weekends because of the traffic congestion, packed beaches, and long lines at the store.

“It doesn’t feel like ours anymore. We’re fighting to keep it ours,” says Kama-Toth. “We’re not trying to be exclusive, you know, just we’re trying to keep it what it was and what it was meant to be.”

Kama-Toth completed her UH survey but she’s skeptical that residents' concerns will change anything. Ebersole, however, is optimistic the research can address some of the community issues.

“We hope that this research can lead to better-informed decision making and hopefully develop some solutions that will end up being something better for the community and something the community can see some value from” says Ebersole.

Residents have through September to complete their surveys. Community sessions on the results are planned for later this year.