Nothing so well approximates Hawaii’s over-tourism story as the crush of people that had blemished the Croatian walled city of Dubrovnik in my two times there.

But their leaders didn’t say, as our Tourism Authority chief recently did,  well, we’ll have to wait and see how many visitors we want, be it 8 million or 12 million.

Last year we had 10,424,995. They overused our beaches, trails, Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head. They jammed our roads with rental cars.

And they brought us money. Lots of it. But the problem with unfettered capitalism is that it’s a natural for abuse. People will cut trees as long as there’s money in lumber, until the trees are gone. They’ll scar every acre of land  so long as there’s profit whatever they’re doing. They’ll close beaches to residents (Ko Olina Resort) to make more beach space for paying outsiders.

Once you turn unfettered capitalism loose it’s very hard to rein in. We get used to it.

But Dubrovnik did that. It waited too long, but it did it. Is doing it.

The pint-sized town had become a mess. Pile Gate, the Old Town entrance nearest to the cruise port, had a theme park-style queueing system to control the flow of crowds. The limestone main street, Stradun, had been smoothed by so many feet a day that it turned into a slippery slide. City workers had to roughen the streets to create resistance for tourists’ flip flops. Souvenir shops replaced food markets for locals, and local-food restaurants were swapped out for fast food outlets.

Cruise ships were unloading 10,000 people a day within a five-hour window on a town of 40,000 residents. And like us, their tourism authority didn’t immediately get alarmed. No, it celebrated the 2.3 million yearly visitors and cheered tourist demands as “healthy” and “welcomed”.

Finally, the resident people said “enough.”  So the mayor banned all new outdoor-seating restaurants, shut down 80% of the made-in-China souvenir stalls. Cruise ship arrivals were staggered to ensure that no more than two ships arrive at the same time. That’s still one too many but its minimization progress.

And here’s the most amazing item: The Croatian National Tourism Board began advertising “Consider skipping Dubrovnik altogether.” Heresy? Maybe. But Croatia is packed with towns that provide a very similar experience of local history and culture to that found in Dubrovnik.

UNESCO stepped in and demanded the the number of visitors be capped at 8,000 at any time as a condition of keeping the valuable historic city designation. So the city installed a “people counter” at the main entrance to monitor the number of tourists entering. So far the number has not exceeded 7,000 at a time. “Our aim is to reduce it to 4,000 at a time,”, says the current mayor.

More important, there were only 3 local grocery stores left because a souvenir stall paid better. There were 107 souvenir shops and 143 restaurants. The latter produced large volumes of waste, unpleasant smells and was challenging for the city’s 500-year-old sewage system.

Housing for locals had become too costly and hard to find. Most places were touristic apartments available for longer term rent only during the six  winter months when tourists disappear. As the Dubrovnik Times reported: “Airbnb brought competition and suddenly everyone with a garage had a ‘luxury apartment in King’s Landing’ for rent.” 

The city’s being gradually returned to its citizens. Yes, the money’s dropped and about 600 people a year move out, seeking work elsewhere. But that, too, relieves some of the pressure.

We seem to demand it all here. The tourists. That every resident’s kids and extended families can stay here. That we needn’t bother creating new jobs because we still have those old ones in tourism (except when something shuts them down!).

We never seem to look ahead. Just down at our feet.


Published by Bob Jones

Journalist since age 19. St. Petersburg Times, Noticias y Viajes in Madrid, Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt and Paris, the Louisville Courier- Journal, the Honolulu Advertiser, KGMB-TV, NBC News foreign correspondent in Africa and Southeast Asia, and MidWeek columnist. LL.B LaSalle University Law. 3 years in the U.S. Air Force. Covered: Biafran War in Nigeria (1968) Vietnam War (1969-73), Iraq in 1991. George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished journalism for reporting in China. 2 Emmys for documentaries. Married to journalist Denby Fawcett; one daughter. Brett Jones, foreign service officer, State Department.

6 replies on “How Many Tourists = Too Many Tourists?”

  1. Dubrovnik, on my wish list to visit. As I walk around my location, it’s nice to not be dodging tourists, but what I do notice is the uncleanliness, the trash, discarded food containers, drink cups, dirty sidewalks, homeless in doorways, on sidewalks.No clean bathrooms! Just plain tackiness. This has been a long time unsolved issue for Hawaii. Of course a lot of businesses came about because of increased tourism, so it’s understandable the closure of some. But I wish money from tourist promotion, millions, would be put into providing a more hygienic state.

  2. In Hawaii, much of the money generated by tourism gets shipped right back out to the corporate hotel owners based on the US mainland or in Japan. Tourism creates jobs, but many are filled by low-paid immigrants who are costly to the general tax base in terms of public services provided. Government gets TAT and GET revenue but spends plenty on tourism’s impacts while many of our roads, parks, and schools still look like hell.
    Social media platforms exposed formerly secret or little-known beaches and hiking trails and gave rise to an endless selfie-hunt that brought hordes of visitors to places that used to be tranquil, leaving lots of residents pissed and resentful. The visitor industry still kept pressing for increased volume, as if expansion could continue forever.
    Airbnb and similar platforms severely distorted the housing market and exacerbated homelessness while elected officials made excuses for a decade before finally cracking down. Now we have the unmitigated arrogance of the big resort you mentioned illegally excluding the public from our shorelines, and it remains to be seen whether they will get away with it since elected officials seem to have lost their voices and news media have such short attention spans. In the meantime, that resort is planning to build another gargantuan hotel to be owned by out-of-state investors.
    And now begins the confused and stumbling push to welcome visitors back. What we still don’t have is a clear plan to limit their numbers and pursue viable economic alternatives beyond rainbow-farting unicorns touted by the I’ve-got-mine-and-enjoy-looking-in-the-mirror sector.
    Tourism without committed planning and regulation will continue to crowd paying passengers onto the ship until it becomes overloaded and capsizes.

  3. This entire discussion makes me laugh. WE ARE the Visitor Industry ! Tourism and Construction have been the Island’s lifeblood for more than 25 years. They are Hawai’i’s Opiate problem. In the 90’s, most everyone sat back and watched sugar, other Ag, and most forms of self-sufficiency closed down so more hotels and houses could be built. Even the parking area at Ala Moana Center was trimmed down for a high rise.
    Big support for all that building. And most everyone here was very happy to elect the politicians who approved the unfettered growth (the (heheh) Republicans were always complaining about the Too-Much Regulation Democratic machine). And every one of you very happy to take the money to improve your lives. Now suddenly, because people can’t park on their streets or the beaches are too crowded, there’s buyers’ remorse. OK. But here’s the reality check. What will we replace all those millions of tourist dollars (tax revenues, etc.) with ?? Some demand a “clear plan” to limit tourist numbers. Really?? OK, which hotels will you close? Whose Jobs shall we eliminate?? It took decades to get here. The only way to ease back tourism and the $ it gives us is to replace its economic contribution. And that’s going to take a smart, decades-long plan. Of course, we could just print up lots of: “Hawai’i— reserved for Rich, High-spending ONLY !” Now there’s a start.

  4. I grew up in Hawaii — and have seen first hand the impact, both negative and positive, of the tourism industry. Unfortunately, way back in the 60’s, the decision was made to focus on volume rather than exclusivity. So Hawaii became the ‘discount’ vacation spot — a way to experience a so called “exotic culture” (although I just don’t see how Waikiki is where one finds that!) on a budget. I have traveled to many places (5 continents, 25 countries) and have seen the full spectrum — commodity-driven, volume-focused tourism vs. exclusivity– one that may cost more for the individual, but leaves the “locals” much happier because their lives can remain largely culturally intact, and the environment far less negatively impacted (by buildings, roads, pollution etc.). It created “islands” on an island…the islands where locals can still be themselves in peace, and the tourist islands where they may go to work to play a role providing high quality (and low volume) support to a handful of visitors. I just wish that Hawaii pursued tourism in this way.

  5. Dubrovnik, Croatia has also been negatively impacted by movie-making in addition to cruise ships! I visited Dubrovnik in 2014, and again in 2018, and was amazed at how much things had changed in 4 years. What happened in between? Mostly “Game of Thrones” — which has done some filming in the Old Town starting with Season 2, Star Wars (Old Town was the filming location for Canto Bight, although it was never advertised as such!) and cruise ships.

    I can’t imagine how crowded Dubrovnik gets in the summer. It is a rather small and compact city, so crowds would quickly and easily become unmanageable. Both of my visits occurred in May, right on the edge of the tourist season. It was warm enough to enjoy the beautiful beaches, but far enough away from the heavy tourist season that most of the influx came via cruise ships. There was a noticeable difference in Old Town between 2014 and 2018. During my first visit, I would have characterized it as “sleepy”. During my second, it was more like Venice!

    It is good that Old Town is monitoring numbers now — even DisneyWorld does that — and I hope it never gets to the point that it approaches its limits (as DisneyWorld does, especially during the xmas holiday season!). But it is my hope that Dubrovnik finds a better way to manage tourism than is happening in Hawaii.

    But it will always start with the will of leadership, and the will of the people to express their wishes to leadership. Too often, I have seen locals just ‘go with the flow’ (including me!) and not make waves. That results in the loudest voices being the only voices being heard. It might be too late for Oahu at this point, and maybe even Maui, but other islands still have a chance of keeping what makes them unique, without selling out to the volume-tourism that is pursued by Oahu. I have stopped going to Poipu on Kauai — was one of my favorite spots in the 70’s – early 2000’s, but over the past decade+ it has become pumped full of selfish, self-centered tourists that would rather get a selfie with a seal or turtle, than to just enjoy the beauty for what it is. It may be too late for Poipu — too much has already been spent in filling the beaches with resorts.

    But it may not be too late for Dubrovnik. After my last visit in 2018, I decided we would probably never visit again (or maybe only get as close as Cavtat to enjoy the water!). But learning now that there may be limits coming, I guess there is hope!

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