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Senator Fred Hemmings

Putting a cap on tourism

Senator Fred Hemmings leads the charge

Senator Fred Hemmings is a Republican in the Hawai’i State Senate and a former professional surfer. He may also have one of the most radical ideas in the Legislature to maintain the state’s sustainability: He wants to cap the number of tourists Hawai’i allows in at any one time.

The idea, which was floated earlier this year in a Senate committee, would create a finite number of accommodation licenses. So, between all the hotels, B&Bs and vacation rentals, only a certain number of visitor ‘heads on beds’ would be allowed. And that number wouldn’t grow from today’s numbers. Hemmings says, 7.5 million visitors a year is enough for the islands.

Are there problems with the idea? Sure. Will we have to broach the subject at some point? Absolutely. So…why not now?

‘The real issue that we all have to ask ourselves is ‘Is there a carrying capacity for tourism?’ The unequivocal answer for any reasonable person is ‘yes’. What we’re going to fight over is the number,’ Hemmings says. ‘For me, 7.5 million is enough. Some would say 10 million. Some extremists would say ‘Turn Kailua into Waikiki. We’d all make more money’. I don’t agree.’

He adds, ‘What you have to remember is that this isn’t a problem that’s endemic to Kailua (part of the senator’s district). Too many tourists, no matter where they are on this island, filter into all neighborhoods.’

When asked what will become of new home buyers who can’t afford their mortgage without vacation renting a portion of their home, the senator responded, ‘The hidden impact of TVU’s (transient vacation units) is it takes a home away from a resident. In my neighborhood, a place that will normally will rent for $2,500 a month to a local will rent for $2,500 a week as a vacation rental.

The senator adds, ‘That’s one less house in the market, so that person goes someplace elseÖ.So there’s a trickle down effect where it drives values up across the board.

In 2001 Hawai’i paid $1.2 million to study sustainable tourism. The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism led the project. The final results were published in April of 2006. Though the study group members couldn’t come to a consensus on how to define sustainable tourism or what growth limitation policies could look like, they did discover some incredible things:

• Residents account for 87 percent of the average daily population on the islands and spent about $20 billion on goods and services.

• Visitors, on the other hand, represent about 13 percent of the daily population of the islands but spent $9.5 billion.

• The average daily visitor census in Honolulu County in 2004 was 83,718.

• The average in 2030 is projected to be 131,781.

• A million-dollar increase in visitor spending translates into growth for most industries, but can actually result in a decline in manufacturing and agriculture due to the way economic growth affects competitive costs and prices.

• Visitors use nearly twice as much water and sewer services per day than residents.

• They use nearly three times as much electricity per day.

• In 1997 the total amount of solid waste generated on the islands was 3,198,245,360 pounds.

• If tourism growth stopped, the initial result would be economic hardship among Hawai’i’s households.

• Prices and wages would initially drop.

• If environmental degradation were overlooked, population would actually be the limiting factor for tourism growth.

• The ‘natural population growth’ on the islands is .75 percent.

• Only if there were significant ‘in-migration’ could necessary tourism jobs be filled.

• On O’ahu there is one tourist for every nine residents.

• On the Big Island there is one tourist for every seven residents.

• On Kaua’i and Mau’i there is one tourist for every three residents

• Surveys found that ‘there is little appetite for an immediate ‘no-growth’ policy’, but more public support for the idea of eventual limits.

Is Hemmings ahead of his time? Will Hawai’i look back on 2007 as the year it could’ve begun a more sustainable tourism industry? Is a Hawai’i Republican a more radical conservationist than the Democrats?

‘I’m really trying to be someone who’s looking at the long-term big picture,’ Hemmings says. ‘We have to stabilize the growth of the tourist industry here and therefore allow the marketplace to develop. We can’t wait for studies or wait for years and years and years.’