I saw my first whales of the season yesterday, spouting and flapping and frolicking in lusciously glassy water off the eastside coast, just beyond the place where perfect barrels were collapsing on the reef.
I saw a monk seal, too, but it wasn't “stealing” anybody's fish, just catching a few winks nestled among rocks that provided perfect camouflage beneath the shade of a heliotrope tree. Ironically, I did see a spear fisherman — or more accurately, a guy carrying a snorkel and spear, who told me, “I've never been to this place before,” to which I replied, dubiously, “it looks a little rough to go out” — trying to “steal” the seal's fish.
But it really was too rough to go out, so after getting banged around for a while, the guy returned to shore, empty-handed.
The school vacation, big waves, sunny skies and warm temps on the tail end of the holiday season prompted a lot of people to hit the beach yesterday — so many that four born and raised North Shore boys headed south to get away from the zoo at Hanalei, and stopped by my house for a visit.
“The whole town is just choked with tourists,” said one. “You can't go anywhere.”
“Pine Trees get so many people it's sick,” said another. “You can't even move. We had to get out of there.”
We spoke of a mutual friend who lives in Wainiha, and they mentioned they hadn't seen her for a while. “That's because she holes up at times like this, when the crowds get thick,” I said, and they all nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, you don't even want to go out when it's like that,” said a third. “That's why we came down here.”
Once again, I was confronted with locals who are being displaced by tourism, made to feel unwelcome in their own backyard, or too uncomfortable to want to enjoy it. And once again I found myself wondering, when it comes to tourism, at one point do we cross the line between enough and too much? Have we already crossed it? I'm sure those four guys would say “yes!” Is anybody even reflecting on that delicate balance? Or is the plan to just go gangbusters so long as there's money to be made?
And I thought back on Monday, when I went to a beach that I consider pretty remote and wild, a place that is lightly used, and mostly by surfers and fishermen. Coming up, at the top of the path, I encountered a group of tourists lugging tripods and cameras, their eyes on the big, beautiful surf, oblivious to me and my dogs trying to get past them on a steep, narrow, badly eroded trail.
I was surprised to encounter a small throng in that place, but didn't give it much thought until I saw, parked along the access road, a van with a PUC license advertising photography tours. Great, I thought, yet another wild place — a place that most tourists would never go — is being opened up, commercialized, so somebody can make a buck. And I was pretty willing to bet it wasn't a local running the enterprise.
Sure enough, it's not. According to an Associated Press article posted on the company's website, it was started by a D.C. transplant in 2009 “when the sluggish economy cut into his fine art sales.” Now it takes out some 1,500 people per year. Which is great for him, but what about the rest of us, those who cherish our quiet, private, untrammeled spots? As the article notes:
Tours last about five hours with a maximum of seven people in a group. They include up to 15 stops, some of which are so far off the beaten path that the hikes back to the car leave you winded enough to realize it's been a few months since your last trip to the gym.
Tour guides swaps out locations depending on the weather, time of day and year, and keeps adding new stops into his rotation as he discovers them.
[W]e stopped at waterfalls, walked into taro fields, waded in lagoons, climbed over lava rock, hiked down to one of the island's most dangerous beaches, and ended in time to catch a dramatic sunset over Hanalei Bay on the island's north side.
Perhaps the company has the proper permits to take people to all these out-of-the-way places. While only a handful of Kauai trails are approved for commercial use, the state is much more lax when it comes to commercial activities on beaches. You can conduct weddings, and perhaps photo tours, too, on all these beaches — if you have a permit.
In other words, pretty much the entire coastline can be used for commercial purposes so long as you pay the state a fee. Or chance `em, because what are the odds of getting busted given DLNR's scanty enforcement budget?
Now, I've got absolutely nothing against tourists. I understand and appreciate their value to the local economy, their desire to experience this beautiful place. I think it's grand when they indulge their sense of adventure and exploration and find some cool, special spot on their own. But it really kind of grates when they're led to the few relatively unused places by someone who is exploiting these locales for kala — even if they do have a permit. As the testimonials noted:
We saw some amazing places that we would not have known to even look for.
[T]ook us to some places that we would have never found in any guide book.
[T]ook us to lots of fabulous locations which even with all the guide books I wouldn't have been able to find.
Which is just what the company's website promises:
Mostly off-the-beaten-path, difficult to find hideaways. See where these many beautiful places are located & return to enjoy on another day
So in other words, soon they will not be off-the-beaten-path, difficult-to-find hideaways. Instead, they'll become like the all the once off-the-beaten-path places that are now on-the-beaten path, easy-to-find places that locals try to escape because they're overcrowded, overused.