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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, April 19, 2001

Maybe it's enough, already

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

A few of our politicians have expressed concern in recent weeks that we may have too many tourists in Hawai'i.

Well, better decades late than never.

First, the Cayetano administration sought a $1.2 million appropriation to study tourism's impact on state resources. That came on the heels of a Sierra Club lawsuit demanding that the state conduct a far more expensive environmental impact study on the effects of tourists. Finally, a Maui County Council member fed up with building and traffic problems has dared to voice the M word — moratorium on new development in some parts of the island.

All this hardly counts as a groundswell of opposition to our tourist-based economy.

But it certainly suggests that some powerful people are starting to ask the same question many of us have been wondering for many years: "When is enough too much?"

Like all natural systems, our islands have a limit to what punishment they can absorb.

There's little doubt we've pushed that limit greatly; common sense tells us that when we stretch something too far, it's going to snap back on our hands sooner or later.

This is where we stand today: 7 million tourists every year, and a $114 million budget to bring even more all the time. (Why don't we take that $1.2 million to study tourism effects out of that money? The Hawai'i Tourism Authority won't even entertain that idea.) No one knows how many more people we can handle, but judging from the way the Hilton Hawaiian Village continues to expand, a lot of people making a lot of money aren't really worried that we're close to reaching the snapping point.

Still, some people are starting to evoke the "carrying capacity" argument for tourism.

When do we reach the point that more tourists start doing more harm than good? When do we worry that more tourist spending is canceled out by the need for more roads, sewers and airports? When do the tourists who come to see the beauty of our environment begin to do more harm than good to the land?

These aren't new questions. A lot of sensible people have been asking them for years, decades. Mostly, though, the people in charge of our government have been ignoring them — the questions and the people asking.

It's not clear what's changing now, if anything. Maybe it's that big lawsuit pending in court that threatens to cost the state really big bucks if we don't do something (anything!) now.

Or maybe the people who have kept their head stuck in the Waikiki and Ka'anapali sand for way too long really are finding out what the rest of us have known suspected for a while: No matter how much tourism keeps growing, no matter how much money the tourists pump into our economy, the quality of our island lives keeps deteriorating, slowly but surely.

Mike Leidemann's columns appear in the Advertiser on Thursdays and Saturdays. E-mail: mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.