Will Hawaii tourists have to pay a 'green fee' to go to the beach? There is growing local support.

Hawaii state leaders nearly passed a law last year to better safeguard Hawaii’s imperiled natural resources by raising revenues through a $40 or $50 tourist "green fee." Proponents hope to build on that momentum this year and push a visitor-impact fee through the House and Senate and onto Hawaii Gov. Josh Green’s desk.

Exactly how such a fee would work – and how it might address Hawaii’s growing conservation needs as more tourists flock to an island chain that’s often dubbed the "endangered species capital of the world" – has been hotly debated for the past half-decade or so.

It's poised to be among the top environmental proposals heading into the new legislative session, which opened Wednesday.

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Who supports the proposed green fee?

Carissa Cabrera, project manager with the Hawaii Green Fee coalition, said she’s encouraged by legislators who want to know more.

“This is part of the conversation now,” she said. “To me, that’s a positive indicator.”

The grassroots coalition, which consists of several dozen groups, is increasing its efforts to pass a green fee bill.The approximately $30,000 to $40,000 that’s funding their efforts for up to 10 months of work mostly comes from the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, she added.

Hanauma Bay, Hawaii
Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

The Green Fee coalition and other supporters have reason to be somewhat optimistic about their chances in 2023. Green, who took office Dec. 5, campaigned last year on creating a “climate impact fee” of about $50 per tourist as they enter the state to raise $500 million to $600 million per year. Lawmakers have already introduced at least one new bill to establish a green fee.

Furthermore, both House and Senate leaders kicked off the new session this week proclaiming their general support for visitors having to pay more of a fair share to offset their impacts on the state’s natural resources.

But the lawmakers’ vision of what a visitor-impact fee would entail could clash with what the Green Fee coalition and other advocates say is necessary to protect the natural resources in Hawaii, which prior to the Covid-19 pandemic saw more than 10 million visitors annually.

“Our residents have been clear. Visitors should be paying for their impact on our natural resources,” Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi declared in his opening floor speech Wednesday. “When they are a guest in our house, they should treat our home like they would hope we treat their home when we visit.”

Kouchi then went on to propose expanding the number of sites across the islands with either parking, entrance or reservation fees – similar to the fees that exist at Kee Beach on Kauai, Waianapanapa State Park on Maui, and Diamond Head State Monument on Oahu.

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What would the revenue of the green fee fund?

Expanding the pool of heavily trafficked destinations could generate between $20 million and $40 million a year in total state visitor impact fees, Kouchi said.

Green fee advocates have said such “fragmentation” would allow for certain parts of Hawaii to be cared for, but not the islands’ environment as a whole.

The Tax Foundation of Hawaii has argued that a state fee might violate the U.S. Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, which generally bars states from discriminating against out-of-state citizens who visit.

In this Monday, March 13, 2017 photo, people relax on the beach in Waikiki in Honolulu.
In this Monday, March 13, 2017 photo, people relax on the beach in Waikiki in Honolulu.

More than a dozen green fee programs have already been created in other countries, according to Jack Kittinger, an Oahu-based vice president at Conservation International. In Palau, for example, visitors pay $100 as part of the island nation’s “Pristine Paradise Fee” program.

Hawaii’s green fee would be the first in the U.S. to use the environmental license model, advocates say. The coalition has completed a legal analysis, which it has shared with the Attorney General’s Office as it completes its own review.

There’s widespread local support for having visitors pay more to protect the islands’ natural resources, Cabrera said. Now, “the obstacle tends to be the how,” as in the details of how that gets done, she added.

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How will the green fee affect the tourism industry?

Another key question is how Hawaii’s influential tourism industry will react to the latest green fee bills to be introduced this session.

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO John De Fries did not respond to a request for comment this week. Last year, HTA testified in support of allowing DLNR to use visitor impact fees in order to better manage state-owned natural resources.

“Many of our state-owned natural resources are in desperate need of improvement due to years of deferred maintenance at these facilities,” De Fries said in his 2022 testimony. “Preserving and protecting these important resources while also investing to enhance them will ultimately result in a better experience for visitors and residents.”

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head Crater including the hotels and buildings in Waikiki, Honolulu, Oahu island, Hawaii.
Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head Crater including the hotels and buildings in Waikiki, Honolulu, Oahu island, Hawaii.

What’s unclear, however, is whether HTA and other local tourism groups would embrace the novel environmental license model touted by the Hawaii Green Fee coalition. Another approach that’s been suggested is to use some of the state’s transient accommodations tax revenues instead. The tax for staying at hotels and short-term rentals is currently 10.25%.

The coalition opposes the TAT approach, however, because that would take away funding from other local needs and services instead of creating a new, dedicated revenue stream tapped from outside visitors.

Both Cabrera and Kittinger said it’s crucial that any Hawaii green fee be overseen by a commission of public- and private-sector representatives in order to foster community buy-in. That includes the tourism industry, they said.

Kouchi and others have said it wouldn’t be possible to collect the fee at the airport because of rules that apply to federal facilities. Kittinger said one approach would be to have visitors pay a fee online or through an app.

Kittinger and other advocates, meanwhile, are anxious to get something approved before it’s too late.

“People look at this and say, ‘We know the clock is ticking,’” Kittinger said. “When a reef is gone, it’s gone. This is the go-time. This is the time to save what we have, to really amp up our stewardship and to really close the financing gap.”

On Thursday, a hearing was held for the bill but it has been deferred by the House Committee on Tourism.

This story was published in partnership with Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit newsroom doing investigative and watchdog journalism relating to the state of Hawaii.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hawaii tourism 'green fee' is supported by local advocates