Has Hawaii Tourism Put Hanauma Bay at Risk?


When most people think of Hawaii, they think of beautiful sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and dense marine life. Hanauma Bay encompasses this vision… one would think. In reality, Hanauma Bay attracts over 3,000 visitors a day. Because of Hawaii tourism, you’re more likely to be overwhelmed by the smell of sunscreen and B.O. as you stroll across what should be absolute paradise.

Courtesy of Best of Oahu

Cue COVID-19

Suddenly, in April 2020, the government acted quickly to shut down tourism and state parks in response to COVID-19. As the footprints of thousands of visitors a day have washed out of the sand, Hanauma Bay has begun to see many more remarkable changes. Months later, it’s beginning to look like the paradise that it once was.

In an interview for the Star Advertiser, Ku’ulei Rodgers reported that larger fish have started to return to the bay and the water is up to 30% clearer than pre-COVID levels. It’s uncertain if the months of solitude have given the Hanauma Bay’s coral enough time to fully recover, however the recent spike in COVID-19 may buy Hanauma Bay more time to heal as tourism is further delayed.

Hanauma Bay’s Past

Given the slow but significant recovery of Hanauma Bay over the last few months, many people are now asking questions:

Should the government allow thousands of tourists into the bay once restrictions are lifted? Should there be measures in place to limit the number of daily visitors in the future and protect the bay?

Hanauma Bay is a place of significance for many native Hawaiians. The locals and royalty have enjoyed the beautiful sands and vibrant wildlife for hundreds of years. It is a piece of Polynesian culture.

However, as globalisation has increased, Hanauma Bay has fallen victim to abuse and overtourism. In the 1990’s the government set out an underwhelming plan to tackle the park’s growing environmental concerns by implementing a brief educational talk before entering the park. The park also closes on Tuesdays to allow for some recovery. As you can see in the video below, this plan was not nearly enough to prevent the damage and pollution in the bay.

Courtesy of Organic Hawaii, YouTube

Hawaii Tourism and Hanauma Bay’s Future

Many think that Hanauma Bay should stay natural, but can the government afford to restrict tourism to this spot? The cost of an adult ticket is $7.50. The estimated revenue from entrance fees alone is close to $18,000 a day, or $108,000 a week.

Can Hawaii afford to turn down the $3.5 million per year that Hanauma Bay generates in entrance fee revenue? Is there a different way for Hawaii to make this revenue without exploiting its own paradise?

Some would argue that Hanauma Bay’s tourism has a positive impact on local businesses. Local stores that provide snorkeling gear, sunscreen, and guided tours rely on tourists for revenue. Their revenue has been lost since the park temporarily closed in March, and many have lost their jobs.

Other tourist spots around the island are struggling, too. COVID-19 hit Hawaii’s economy hard. According to the State’s Department of Business’s Q2 report, unemployment rose to an estimated 23.2% in April. Nearly 78,000 hospitality workers lost their jobs. Delaying the reopening of tourism can only cause further negative impacts on the local economy.

But… Is this a problem because of the lack of tourism? Or, is it because of an unhealthy dependency on tourism?

Perhaps it’s time to rethink Hawaii tourism. A nation that depends on others to sustain the economy isn’t very… sustainable. And, if Hawaii continues to fall victim to the overtourism that destroys natural attractions like Hanauma Bay, there will be no attractions left for tourists to see.

In order to protect Hanauma Bay and the vulnerable culture it represents, we have to look at our own behaviours. We must learn to be more conscious of our own environmental footprint and how our travels affect others’ homes. We have to understand and respect the cultural history of our destinations, and do what we can to help protect it.

Hanauma Bay is only one example of the growing conflict between economic gains and environmental protection. Click here to read our blog on how you can travel sustainably!


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