(eTN) Development threatens to beat out natural beauty on O’ahu so much so that the current issue of National Geographic’s Traveler magazine ranks the island “in serious trouble” as a vacation destination.
Kaua’i and Maui got a better ranking — falling into the “moderate trouble” category — and Moloka’i and the Big Island garnered a place in the category of “minor difficulties.”
The panel of 522 experts polled by the magazine lumped O’ahu in with Key West, Fla.; Phuket, Thailand, and Hilton Head, S.C. A few islands fared even worse, including Jamaica and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
City Council member Charles Djou, who represents Waikiki, said the survey raises some legitimate environmental concerns but ignores other modern realities.
“They rate very highly Moloka’i, and I think that’s principally because there’s very little human habitation there,” Djou said.
“If we can kick out about 90 percent of the population of O’ahu, we’d fix a lot of this.”
Djou said it is true that Hawai’i needs to safeguard the environment. “It’s not only a nice, good tree-hugging thing, we need to recognize that tourism is the largest sector of our economy and that preserving our natural environment is important.”
He said Waikiki renovations have put a new face on the old resort. It makes him wonder when a majority of the panelists last visited there: “Ten years ago versus today, it has dramatically improved.”
The panelists came from a variety of fields — ecology, sustainable tourism, geography, travel writing and photography, site management, historic preservation, indigenous cultures, archaeology.
Among the Hawai’i comments from panelists:
O’ahu: “With 1 million inhabitants and 5 million tourists a year, O’ahu is a small island of very intense human occupation. Outside Honolulu, the island landscape is more authentic, with mountains, agriculture, small communities, nice beaches, and tremendous waves.”
Moloka’i: “Hiking in fabulous forests and ocean kayaking in the protection of cliffs and coral reefs — definitely an island for the physically active. The leper colony site is a challenge to visit, but a great piece of the island’s history.” And, “A step back to the real Hawai’i. The pace was slow and locals would sit and chat with the tourists. Open to telling their story.”
Maui: “An undervalued historical and cultural destination. Great natural beauty. However, hotel development and consequent traffic are a serious problem.”
Hawai’i (Big Island): “My favorite of the Hawaiian chain —live volcanoes, rare birds, forest and waterfall hikes, well-presented Hawaiian and settler history, high standard of agritourism, and a wide range of small-scale, locally owned historic and contemporary accommodations achieve near-perfection on much of the island outside Kona.”
Kaua’i: “Little interpretation of Hawaiian culture except in terms of lu’aus and hulas. Major massacres, labor problems and the domination by United States interests important, but hushed up.”
The panelists used these six criteria:
Environmental and ecological quality;
Social and cultural integrity;
Condition of historic buildings and archaeological sites;
Aesthetic appeal; quality of tourism management;
Outlook for the future.
The Hawai’i Tourism Authority’s president and chief executive officer is Rex Johnson, who said the magazine raised concerns that have been debated for decades.
He said the basic premise of the survey is: “The more development that occurs in an island ecosystem, the more spoiled it is.”
Overdevelopment is a constant fear for any island, he said. “We have worried about that here in Hawai’i for years.”
He said the industry has recognized the need to preserve environmental and cultural authenticity for years. And strict land-use zoning and environmental laws help prevent rampant growth in the future.
Should there have been more height restrictions? Probably, Johnson said. And certainly the city does have problems with water, sewer and landfill capacity issues.
But the island that holds a vast majority of the state’s population isn’t doing too badly in his view. “If you compare O’ahu with any other huge metropolitan area in the Mainland or world, we are not bad off.”
Johnson adds, “I believe that we all wish that life could be like it was 40 years ago, but it’s unrealistic.”