Can Hawaii’s Unique Natural Environment Survive Without Tourist Fees?

As Hawaii's natural beauty attracts a growing number of tourists, lawmakers are considering charging them fees to help preserve the islands' fragile ecosystem.

The Hawaiian islands are renowned for their pristine beaches, lush forests, and stunning vistas. However, preserving these natural wonders is becoming increasingly challenging, given the surging number of tourists drawn to the islands’ scenic beauty. To mitigate the impact of tourism, lawmakers in Hawaii are exploring the possibility of charging tourists fees for visiting state parks and trails, a measure that would be a first of its kind in the United States.

The proposed legislation would require tourists to purchase a year-long license or pass to access state parks and trails. While the exact fee has yet to be determined, Governor David Ige previously campaigned on a promise to charge all tourists a $50 entrance fee. Lawmakers, however, have raised concerns that this fee may violate U.S. constitutional protections for free travel. Instead, they are focusing on the parks and trails approach, which they believe is more feasible.

The push for tourist fees is partly motivated by changing traveler patterns. In the past decade, golf rounds per visitor per day have declined by 30%, while hiking has increased by 50%. Social media has also played a significant role in luring tourists to obscure locations, which the state cannot afford to manage. Representative Sean Quinlan, a Democrat who chairs the House Tourism Committee, said, “It’s not like it was 20 years ago when you bring your family, and you hit maybe one or two famous beaches, and you go see Pearl Harbor. These days, it’s like, well, you know, ‘I saw this post on Instagram and there’s this beautiful rope swing, a coconut tree.'”

Currently, most state parks and trails in Hawaii are free. However, some popular ones charge a fee, such as the Diamond Head State Monument, which costs $5 per visitor. Residents with a Hawaii driver’s license or other state identification would be exempt from paying the fee.

Hawaii’s conservation needs are pressing. Invasive pests are ravaging the state’s forests, and a fungal disease is killing the ohia tree, which makes up the largest portion of the canopy in native wet forests. Tourists have also contributed to conservation issues. The harassment of wildlife, such as dolphins, turtles, and Hawaiian monk seals, is a recurring problem. Hikers can unknowingly bring invasive species into the forest on their boots, and snorkelers and boats trample on coral, adding stress to already struggling reefs.

Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization, estimated in a 2019 report that Hawaii needs $886 million to address its conservation needs, but only $535 million is currently available from federal, state, county, and private spending. The proposed visitor impact fee special fund would be managed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

While some visitors to Hawaii’s state parks and trails have expressed support for the proposed fee, others believe it would be unfair. Some tourists view hiking as a low-cost activity, and they believe that a $50 entrance fee is too high. Mufi Hanneman, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, supports the bill but cautions that the state must use the funds responsibly. “The last thing that you want to see is restrooms that haven’t been fixed, trails or pathways that haven’t been repaved or what have you—and year in, year out, it remains the same, and people are paying a fee,” Hanneman said.

As Hawaii’s natural environment faces mounting threats, the state must find ways to protect its fragile ecosystem.