Proposed ‘green fee’ could end aloha as we know it

Certain images come to mind when you hear the words “Hawaii vacation” — think sunsets, luaus and mai tais by the beach.

What doesn’t come to mind is sitting on a beach and being approached by a government agent who wants to see your papers.

But that could become part of the average visitor’s vacation to Hawaii vacation if the Legislature enacts a proposed “visitor impact” fee.

Gov. Josh Green claims the proposed “green fee” will bring in $400 million to fund conservation efforts, and the idea of having visitors pay for environmental programs has a lot of support. There is real debate in Hawaii about the impact of tourism, and the visitor fee plays directly into those concerns.

The proposal has sailed through the Hawaii Legislature, though it also has picked up amendments that have to be worked out before it can pass a final vote.

Under the measure, every visitor to Hawaii over the age of 15 who wants to visit a state park, beach, trail or natural area would have to purchase an annual $50 license.

Seems simple enough. But the idea starts to fall apart when you dig into the details and potential consequences.

The first question is: How do you differentiate a resident from a visitor? The bill says a resident is anyone with a Hawaii ID, or who has paid Hawaii income taxes in the last year, or who can produce local correspondence such as a utility bill or letter from the government.

Ironically, this means that people with second homes in Hawaii can claim to be residents because they can produce a utility bill or government letter. But if you think of yourself as local because your family lives in Hawaii, you grew up in Hawaii and you go back every year for your grandmother’s birthday, you’re out of luck. Even if you were a Native Hawaiian, you’d be a visitor who has to pay the fee.

Then there is the question of whether the visitor fee would survive a legal challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court frowns on taxes that treat nonresidents differently and frowns on laws that inhibit interstate travel.

Supporters claim the proposal would be legal because it effectively would be only a user fee. This is all academic until the proposal’s language is finalized. But this also raises questions about how the state would enforce the license.

For example, not every natural area in Hawaii has a front gate or parking area, so it’s not clear how the state would ensure that tourists pay the fee — especially since the fee would not be added to their airline or hotel bills. The possibility of “tourist police” patrolling the beaches and asking to see visitor licenses could become a civil rights nightmare. It also raises the question of whether residents will have to carry their own documentation.

No wonder that the current draft of the bill would delay enforcement of the license for five years.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s tourism industry — the state’s largest economic driver — has largely been mum about the fee idea, despite the possible adverse effects it could have. At $50 a person, a family of four would no longer have $200 to spend on souvenirs, eating out, renting snorkeling equipment, whale-watching or taking surfing lessons.

Alternatively, tourists might look for ways to circumvent the fee, shifting from state beaches and parks to locations that don’t require a license.

Or they might avoid Hawaii altogether because they don’t want to spend their holiday in a place that so blatantly categorizes tourists as an inconvenience to be tolerated only for the money.

If Hawaii’s politicians aren’t careful, they might kill the goose that lays the golden egg and transform the state into a divided paradise, where few visitors get to enjoy the full cultural experience of a Hawaii vacation.

This could be the end of “aloha” as we know it.


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