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.

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  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.

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