Hawaii Sierra Club sues over tourism

Published October 1, 2000

“Overcrowded beaches, strained natural resources, clogged roadways, and overburdened natural areas—these are the tangible effects of increasing visitor arrivals,” said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, which has filed suit in the state’s supreme court against the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

The Sierra Club chapter seeks to force the Tourism Authority to perform an environmental assessment before going forward with a planned three-year, $114 million contract to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau to market Hawaii to tourists.

Hawaii is struggling to rebuild its economy, hurt by the Asian economic slump in 1998 and a resulting fall in the number of tourists. “Our economy bottomed out and we’re moving forward,” said Robert Fishman, the Tourism Authority’s executive director. “This [lawsuit] has the potential to hurt that recovery.

Hawaii, like 38 other states, has on its books a law that requires state agencies to go through an environmental review process with public hearings before taxpayer dollars are spent. A bill pending in the state legislature would formally exempt the tourism industry, but disagreement remains as to whether the current law requires the study.

Fishman called the lawsuit “patently ridiculous,” saying the state law was meant to study the impacts of major infrastructure construction efforts, such as bridges and roads.

The lawsuit has attracted attention on the mainland. “If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Sierra Club, then virtually every other major tourist attraction that is a public resource is subject to identical scrutiny,” feared Thomas Tait, executive director of Nevada’s Commission on Tourism. Lawsuits could be used to curtail activity in National Parks as well, he said.

Lorraine Hunt, Nevada’s lieutenant governor, added, “If the state of Hawaii loses this lawsuit, it could set a precedent for blocking other states, such as Nevada, as well as county and local entities from promoting tourism.”

The Sierra Club suit claims the tourism marketing plan would increase tourism in the state by 15 percent by 2005. Fishman counters that a suspension of marketing plans for Hawaii would cause tourists to seek other sites, such as Mexico, for their vacations. He also pointed out that the environmental impact study demanded by the Sierra Club would cost the state several million dollars. “Where do you start and where do you stop?” asked Fishman. “Would every aspect of the economy that touches tourism be included?”

Alton Miyasaka, an aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, admits tourists have had a negative effect on Hanauma Bay on the island of Oahu. However, according to Miyasaka, the bay is recovering, as the local community has worked with state and county leaders to impose a new ban on fish feeding and a smoking ban. Parking limits have been imposed, he noted, and bus drop-offs disallowed. Miyasaka said, “[The bay is] as normal as normal can be given that the area continues to be very heavily used.”

“The people that will tend to want to save habitats like that are those that have actually been in the water and can appreciate it,” Miyasaka. “But the only way they can learn to appreciate it, they have to get in the water.

“If the Hawaii Tourism Authority agrees that the natural environment is what makes Hawaii so attractive, then they should have no problem with preparing an environmental assessment so that any adverse impact could be prevented or minimized,” he said.

The Sierra Club suit, filed January 11, is pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court. Mikulina told Environment & Climate News he is uncertain when the court will rule.