How Many Tourists = Too Many Tourists?

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.


Is It Sacred, Abused Or Even Necessary?

The retired Army colonel and local activist Ann Wright wants the state to end the use of Pohakuloa lava lands on Hawaii Island as a military training area that includes live fire.

Hawaii already has retired the Navy and Air Force from bombing Kahoolawe island and dismissed the Army from Makua Valley live fire on Oahu.

I guess the “aloha aina” people want the U.S. military to take its training to some other state — maybe California. Just not this state. They don’t want a rocket-launch site at South Point or TMT on Mauna Kea either. Just land to be looked at and not abused.

That’s a fine objective, just not totally practical in a practical world. If we’re going to close down all live fire ranges here, then we have to close down most all military installations here. Tourism and the military are currently our only substantial slices of an economy.

Pohakuloa doesn’t have any practical use. It’s part of state ceded lands between volcanoes and we leased it to the Army 56 years ago. We certainly should have demanded more than what we did — $65 for 65 years of use. Pretty ridiculous, huh? But that was in the middle of the Vietnam War and our 25th Division and the Kaneohe Marines were being sent there without much realistic training on artillery, tank movement and close air support.

Military use of the land is perfectly legal under the ceded lands laws, but the state is required to closely monitor the use and the court evidence has been that it has not. It left that to the Army. It policed itself.

There was a precedent for that. We had let the Marines use the training ground however they wanted during WWII when they were based just outside Waimea.

But since that time, weaponry changed dramatically and Pohakuloa would become tainted with unexploded bombs and shells and lots of depleted uranium rounds from tank fire when the 25th Division still had heavy armor units.

That’s not good and means the Army has not been a good steward of the land.

I’m not a subscriber to that local theory that some lands are “sacred” to Hawaiians or others. Some certainly were in early history when belief in gods and ghosts ignored science. But today? That’s mostly mumbo-jumbo that disguises a yearning for an earlier time of Native Hawaiian prevalence in these lands.

We do much more damage to our lands with almost-unrestricted housing development. Look at our formerly gorgeous Koolau hills on Oahu!

Pohakuloa likely needs better state supervision of clean-ups and kinds of usage and damage done.

But cancelling the lease is the true cutting off the nose to spite the face. We’d have to also live without the military and all the money Uncle Sam spends here yearly for military construction and civilian salaries.

Is that what you want?


Don’t Throw Out Baby With The Bathwater

You’d do well to ignore today’s editorial call in the Star-Advertiser for term limits on the Honolulu Prosecutor.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the bad behavior of former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha and the sense that chief prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro expended too little supervision of her activities or maybe even was party to some of them.

We’ve had a pretty minimal experience with elected city prosecutors. Charles  Marsland (1981–1988), Keith Kaneshiro (1989–1996), Peter  Carlisle (1997–2010), and Kaneshiro again in 2010 until he was removed because of a federal investigation of both his office and him personally.
Marsland was a hard-core “lock ’em up” guy because he lost a son to criminal activity here. Carlisle was a law-and-order man, too, basically, but he had his eye on the mayor’s job more than the prosecutor’s. Kaneshiro’s under some suspicion right now, but look at how many years we liked him in office.

A city prosecutor is not a political leader and so is not judged by the standards we apply to a mayor or a City Council member. He or she does not make policy or law. He or she enforces statutory law. The prosecutor can be either hard-line and favoring prosecution for even the smallest misdemeanor (like William Bratton when he was New York’s police chief) or more inclined toward rehabilitation and not wasting much time on petty crime.

And maybe the office does need some refreshment and maybe Kaneshiro was in too long and developed too many favorites or gave breaks to friends or politicians. But we kept voting for him. We didn’t have any yearning for a term limit ten years ago when we brought him back. Why suddenly now?

The best way to handle that office is exactly the way we do with our police chiefs. Unless one retires or resigns, the job’s safe so long as an oversight body — the Police Commission — says the holder’s doing it well. In the case of the Honolulu Prosecutor, we voters are that “oversight commission.” Every four years we are offered a chance to change prosecutors. We make a judgment call then on competence.

A term limit would toss out a prosecutor who’s doing a bang-up job and has our majority approval. That makes no sense. Ipso facto, that editorial makes no sense. It says “leadership in this office needs refreshing from time to time.”  That’s saying even great leadership needs refreshing.

If a prosecutor made public policy decisions as do mayors and city/state lawmakers, I’d be okay with the refreshment argument.

But term limiting because of a whim about refreshment would toss out a lot of very good babies.


What? You No Like Me?

Two of our town’s opinion columnists have soundly slammed Gov. David Ige for allegedly not being the leader we need.

Writers David Shapiro and Lee Cataluna haven’t quite called Ige an incompetent idiot, but they’ve come close.

Meanwhile, some senators and State House members of his own party have chosen more diplomatic language with which to signal that they disagree with him.

What’s hampering Kawika?

I think it’s more about his style than his substance. There’s a new expectation of politicians to be forceful and exude confidence in their decisions. Former Gov. George Ariyoshi (“quiet but effective”) would not make the cut today. Former mayor Frank Fasi would, although we’d probably be asking him to tone it down a bit.

And how you exude confidence matters. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano got away with a lot of swagger without more than a scratch and one close call against a GOP opponent. Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s effervescence brought on the fatal wound of one 4-year term.

Ige’s policies are no less competent as I read them than anything ever promulgated by his predecessors. But there seems to be a wimpyness in his presentations. He doesn’t exude the confidence we see in Lt. Gov. Josh Green or Mayor Kirk Caldwell. We sense him asking us “do you agree with that, or should I change it?”

How far should opinion writers go with their easy-to-come-by criticisms. For sure they can legally whack away. But shouldn’t we hold their feet to the fire when their words get brutal?

International tribunals – and increasingly national ones as well – are clear that politicians may be subject to greater criticism and insult than ordinary individuals. Penalties for defamation in such cases would only apply where the accusations are “devoid of foundation or formulated in bad faith.” Shapiro and Cataluna come close but not quite.

Some recent Pew Research is helpful here. The public generally views calling a politician “stupid” is out of bounds. Shapiro and Cataluna tend to come close but not quite.

Public opinion is more mixed over the acceptability of calling a politician’s policy positions “evil”: 35% say this is never acceptable and 34% say it is rarely acceptable. 31% say it is at least sometimes acceptable. So Shapiro and Cataluna may have 70% of you on their sides.

In his book “In Defense of Politicians In Spite of Themselves”, author Peter Riddell says “politicians have never been popular. Their motives and behavior have always been questioned. They have been seen as devious, factional and self-interested. Shakespeare referred to ‘scurvy politicians’ in King Lear.”

I like this quote from an actual politician the best: “Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who are at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom because, being a politician myself, none can regard it as personal.

Who said that? Abraham Lincoln in 1837.

We love criticizing politicians but we can’t have our democratic system without them.

My take is that opinion writers’ criticism of Ige’s handling of our pandemic emergency is at odds with what we expect from leaders — some leaps of faith, some mistakes from unforeseen events, some slack in tough decision times.

Fewer  insults.


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