Town tells Hawaii: Stop sending tourists
KAILUA, Hawaii — People from across the world are drawn to the coastal town of Kailua. Its white sand beaches are among the nation's best. Some recommend the Honolulu suburb for its laid-back vibe. And President Obama vacations there with his family each Christmas.
But now, the neighborhood board is asking a state tourism agency to stop encouraging visitors to stay overnight in their town.
It's the latest salvo in a long-running battle over how much tourism Kailua wants and should allow — a dispute that's popping up around the state as more of the increasing numbers of visitors who arrive want to experience island life like a local rather than a tourist.
The board is upset about a thriving industry of bed-and-breakfast and vacation rentals that are leased out short-term without permits. The board says these places deplete Kailua's already limited supply of housing, inflating costs and putting homes out of reach of those born and raised in town.
Neighbors don't like having a stream of strangers staying next door. “It doesn't feel like a neighborhood when you don't know the people there,” board member Lisa Marten said. “If there's any sort of safety issue, there's no one to ask for help because you don't know them.”
Two of the three houses next to Marten are vacation rentals. Earlier this year, a large group of renters in their 20s staying in one of the homes was “doing drugs from morning till night,” she said. Marijuana fumes wafted into Marten's yard, and she could hear them spouting foul language.
“I would say to them, ‘I've got teenagers. I've got very young kids. I'm trying to teach them to stay away from drugs. You must have nieces and nephews, please take it inside and be discreet,' ” she said. They ignored her pleas, noting that they had medical marijuana licenses.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly how many vacation rentals are in Kailua, but one website, Vacation Rentals by Owner, lists 289 vacation rental units in the town. The Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates there may be about 500. Statewide, there are between 7,000 and 10,000, regulated based on different local laws in each county.
But only a few dozen in Kailua actually have permits: 35 bed-and-breakfasts and 30 vacation rental units, according to Board Chairman Chuck Prentiss. The rest are illegal. Rules are tight on Oahu, where the county hasn't issued new permits since 1990.
So when the board noticed the tourism agency's website suggested that “a Kailua vacation rental can be the perfect solution” for those planning a family vacation or traveling in large groups, they decided to push back.
By a 12-2 vote, the board in September passed a resolution requesting that the agency “stop promoting Kailua as a tourist destination and alternative to Waikiki” — the bustling beachfront neighborhood in Honolulu.
Marten said it wasn't right for one government agency — the tourism authority — to promote vacation rentals while another — the city — struggles to enforce the law against illegal operators.
The neighborhood board doesn't have any power to pass laws and is only an advisory body. But Ikaika Anderson, who represents Kailua in the Honolulu City Council, said the resolution is “an embarrassment” and doesn't reflect the opinion of most residents.
“It's a signal to those folks who do not live in Kailua that Kailua residents do not welcome them,” Anderson said.
Defenders of vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfasts say they support the economy and provide jobs, noting they've helped many boutiques and restaurants that have cropped up in Kailua over the past decade or so to flourish.
Those who operate vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfasts say renting their homes to tourists allows them to earn extra income, pay the mortgage and stay in Kailua, where housing prices are among the state's most expensive.
The median sales price of home in Kailua and neighboring Waimanalo hit $794,500 last year, according to Honolulu Board of Realtors data.
Angie Larson, a board member of the Hawaii Vacation Rental Owners Association, said many people already know about Kailua without the tourism authority telling them about it.
“It's a little too late to keep Hawaii in a box. Everybody wants to go. Not everyone wants to stay in a hotel,” said Larson, who operated an unpermitted bed-and-breakfast in Kailua.
Mike McCartney, the head of the tourism authority and a Kailua resident, said community leaders need to come together to have a conversation about finding the right balance. He said what's happening in Kailua is happening on all the islands.
“How do we care for our land, our people, our places, our culture and respect it all, together,” he asked.