The pristine beaches, dramatic peaks, stunning waterfalls, and thriving wildlife that draw visitors to Hawaii are the exact elements that are impacted by tourism the most. So a bill currently going through the state’s legislature is proposing a new Hawaii Green Fee: an annual $50 per person fee to visit the state’s natural wonders in order to help protect them for generations to come.

“For decades, Hawaii’s natural beauty has enchanted visitors, awakening their curiosity and sense of exploration,” Hawaii Green Fee project manager Carissa Cabrera says. “For this place we call home, that cost is the erosion of our natural and cultural resources. The Hawaii you see today is so different from the Hawaii of 10 years ago.”

Among the changes: coral reefs are waning, beaches are more polluted, and native plants and animals are vanishing. “The constant visitor traffic takes its toll,” she says. “We cannot keep taking from our resources without replenishing and protecting and caring for them in some way to ensure they do more than survive, but thrive.”

Cabrera says that the 50th state’s ecosystems provide more than $6 billion in value to Hawaii’s economy annually, but only one percent of the state budget is dedicated toward protecting the resources. The chasm is especially surprising because of Hawaiian culture’s connection with nature. A recent poll showed that 95 percent of the state’s voters believe it’s their own responsibility to protect the ocean for future generations, according to Cabrera—yet they haven’t had the resources to do so.

“Hawaii struggles with overtourism,” Impact Travel Alliance Cofounder Kelley Louise says. “Even for the most conscious of travelers, our actions still have an impact—and carbon footprint.”

Here’s how the plan for the tourist fee would work: Visitors who are at least 15 years old would pay a $50 fee to the state and receive an environmental license, granting them access to the state’s parks, beaches, and trails for a year. The digital pass would be available through an app or site that works hand-in-hand with the current reservation systems in place for some of Hawaii’s most popular sites, like Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay. Travelers will then be required to show that pass to gain entry to state-run sites.

If the bill goes through, it would bring in as much as $400 million annually to help manage natural and cultural resources, allowing state, city, and county programs, as well as nonprofits, to support a sustainable green economy, climate resiliency, community improvement projects, and visitor stewardship. Among the goals would be restoring coral reefs, cleaning beaches, conserving forests, developing regenerative agriculture, protecting cultural sites, and recovering endemic flora and fauna.

A group of nonprofits and small businesses in the state have banded together to champion the fee, ranging from tour operators like Travel2Change and Kailua Beach Adventures, nonprofit organizations like Mālama Pupukea-Waimea and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, and Native Hawaiian community networks like Kua’āina Ulu ‘Auamo.

Hawaii isn’t the first place to come up with a fee of this sort. The island nation of Palau already has a Palau Pristine Paradise Environmental Fee (PPEF) in place, embedded as a $100 charge on the price of every international plane ticket. Visitors are also required to sign the Palau Pledge that’s stamped into their passports, and addresses the next generation, starting with: “Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.”

Hawaii is taking a different approach, in part because it can’t charge a fee upon arrival like Palau since constitutional commerce clauses require free travel between states in the U.S. But it’s also a way to put an emphasis on the state’s resources that are not currently receiving proper funding.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to combating the climate crisis or what would work best for each destination, but creating more programs like this—and learning from them—allows us to replicate those models in different destinations around the world,” Louise says. “It’s not a silver bullet solution, but it does mean that by default, every visitor plays a small but powerful part in having a positive impact on Hawaii when they visit. This is a huge step toward mainstreaming sustainability: every single travel experience we have should have a positive impact on our world.”

Environmental fees like this have yet to be commonplace, and if the Hawaii Green Fee is enacted, it could usher in the way for similar models. “Embracing more programs like this allows us to move toward more of a destination stewardship model,” Louise says. “Money talks, and investing funds directly into conservation projects is one of the most effective ways to advocate for change and combat the climate crisis.”

The Hawaii Green Fee team did not comment on a probable timeline. The state site currently has the House of Representative’s bill No. HB 442, listed as “deferred,” as of February 2, but an amended bill in the Senate, No. SB 304, was transmitted to the House as of March 7, so it could just be a matter of time.

While the fee does seem to pile on to what is already a fairly expensive destination, the Hawaii Green Fee team notes that visitors during the early days of the pandemic were willing to pay for required covid testing, which cost on average $60.

“We are not trying to be greedy,” Cabrera says, likening the new charge to a tip to show appreciation for service. “This fee is an opportunity to thank our natural and cultural resources for what they have provided by giving back to them and protecting them so those who follow in your footsteps can enjoy them as well.”

Rachel Chang

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