San Diego honeymooners Ramon and Christine Henares ventured into Kailua on Friday in search of a kayak ride, a shave ice and what they called “the real Hawaii experience.”
“Kailua was awesome. It’s pretty secluded, and we didn’t see that many other tourists,” said Ramon Henares as he purchased a shave ice at Island Snow. “It seems more authentic.”
His recent bride, Christine Henares, agreed, saying that when they return to Oahu for their next vacation, they’ll try to find overnight accommodations in Kailua.
“I’d rather come back here than Waikiki — it’s too crazy there,” she said.
Increasingly, tourists like the Henareses are viewing Kailua as an alternative to Waikiki. Tourist interest in Kailua is partially due to Hawaii’s maturity as a destination and its high rate of repeat visitors, who go out of their way to seek new experiences on return trips.
Positive word of mouth and social media about the destination also have attracted visitors along with mentions in visitor publications across the globe.
The state’s tourism agency, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, has even gotten in on the act, billing Kailua as a “buzzing beach town” with “turquoise water, white sand beaches, unique boutiques and casual dining.”
Along with Kailua Beach, HTA’s official travel website, www.gohawaii.com, also touts a variety of Kailua businesses including Boots and Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen, Crepes No Ka Oi, Kalapawai Market, Island Snow, Formaggio Grill, Olive Boutique and Global Village.
At Island Snow, tourists make up 60 percent of the business, which has enabled it to expand its store space and, during peak seasons, employ about a dozen workers from Kailua and surrounding communities like Waimanalo and Kaneohe, said Island Snow Supervisor Karllene Sato.
Business has gotten an added boost because President Barack Obama, who vacations each winter in Kailua, has made Island Snow a frequent stop.
“Tourism is extremely important to us,” Sato said. “The more visitors that come, the more people that we can employ. With the tourists here, on average we go through 15 blocks of ice a day. That’s anywhere from 200 to 300 shave ice.”
That’s a good thing, right? Well, that depends on whom you ask.
While many Kailua community members and businesses say that they are glad to welcome visitors like the Henareses, who bolster the neighborhood’s tourist economy, others say the sheer volume of tourists who are coming has had a negative impact on the quality of life in the once sleepy suburb.
“We are definitely on the map of where the tourists stop. If you look at ‘101 Things to Do on Oahu,’ they are marketing Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, the North Shore and Kailua,” said Donna Wong, who has lived in Kailua for about 30 years and is a member of the Kailua Neighborhood Board.
Wong said increased tourism in Kailua has brought traffic congestion and overcrowding to the community, driven up housing costs, turned residential communities into resorts, attracted tourism-centered retailers who are seemingly unconcerned with providing goods and services for locals, and commercialized the neighborhood’s beaches and parks.
“It just isn’t your town anymore; it’s a resort,” Wong said. “Visitor demand has raised housing prices. Workers can’t afford to live in Kailua, and my children can’t even afford to live in the town where they grew up.”
The median price for a single-family home in the Kailua-Waimanalo area was $890,000 in August, up 15 percent from $775,000 a year earlier, according to the most recent neighborhood data from the Honolulu Board of Realtors. By comparison, Oahu’s median price for the same month was $665,000. It rose even further in September to $675,000.
Wong said that the hometown feel of the community has changed, too.
“Before, you would always see people that you knew, and you would stop and talk, but now it’s overcrowded by people that you don’t know,” she said. “It’s losing that friendly atmosphere, and people are agitated all the time. You’ll see them at Longs, and they’ll say, ‘It took me forever to get here because I got behind all the tourists on their bikes.'”
Wong said the last straw was when HTA began advertising Kailua’s short-term vacation rentals on its public-funded website. She and other members of the Kailua Neighborhood Board overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Sept. 5 asking the HTA “to respect the zoning and quality of life in the residential neighborhood and immediately stop promoting Kailua as a tourist destination and alternative to Waikiki.”
On Thursday, HTA CEO and President Mike McCartney said the agency does not encourage or promote illegal vacation rentals that are not properly licensed. McCartney said that the agency would continue to market Kailua and its businesses and short-term rentals because it is responsible for “authentically and fairly promoting destinations and businesses throughout the Hawaiian Islands.”
At the same time, McCartney said that the agency intends to work with Kailua stakeholders to balance community interests with tourism, which is estimated by HTA to pump more than $100 million annually into the neighborhood.
“It’s our job to work with communities to figure what kind of host that they want to be,” said McCartney, who grew up in Windward Oahu. “Some places are proud (to have the mining or automobile industries), and in Hawaii I hope that we’re proud that we have visitors to learn about Hawaii’s people, place and culture.”
But there are signs that Kailua tourism has dampened since the resolution was made public, said David Uchiyama, HTA vice president of brand management.
“What’s gone out publicly about Kailua has already damaged them. Visitors won’t go where they aren’t welcome,” Uchiyama said. “It is a concern when you have a community make a statement like what they made.”
HTA Chairman Ron Williams, who runs Atlantis Submarines in Hawaii, said failing to resolve the debate in Kailua could affect tourism for all of Hawaii.
“It doesn’t just affect Kailua; it affects all of us,” Williams said. “It has a lot to do with the well-being of our entire state of Hawaii.”
McCartney said the success of tourism this year alone has generated nearly $10 billion in visitor spending statewide and contributed $1.04 billion in state tax revenue during the first eight months. Tourism also supports about 170,000 jobs statewide and has brought Hawaii air access to 50 cities around the world.
Barbara High, who owns a short-term Kailua rental called Pillows in Paradise, added that there are many businesses in Kailua that would not survive without visitor support.
“I have three children that work in Kailua, and if tourism wasn’t there, I don’t think that they could maintain their jobs or that those businesses would stay open,” High said. “I’m really not sure how the Kailua Neighborhood Board decided what they did.”
Wong said the board heard from many Kailua community members before deciding to pass the recent resolution and will probably take additional action if it’s warranted.
“We need tourism dollars, there’s no doubt about it,” Wong said. “But when you look at tourism, you have to also look at the costs to the community and its carrying capacity. I don’t think that this action will be our last.” ___