Kee Beach, Napali Coast, Kauai

The North Shore of Kauai is home to beautiful beaches, surf breaks, snorkel spots, carved mountains, crumbling cliffs and one of the world’s most majestic coastlines, the Napali Coast. Over the years, it has grown massively in popularity, sending a surge of visitors and new residents to the once-sleepy island.

Though plenty of accommodations and attractions exist to house and entertain visitors, the sheer increase in numbers has brought about issues with traffic, congestion and lack of parking, especially in the most-visited areas, like the North Shore and the Napali Coast.

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One area, in particular, was the neighborhoods on the North Shore between Kee beach and Hanalei. Beach lots were packed to the gills and parking overflowed into neighborhoods, clogging streets and frustrating residents.

As these issues were coming to a head in April 2018 and officials were attempting to answer the tough questions—like how tiny Kauai can balance tourism and local life—heavy rains and floods devasted the North Shore, closing it to the public for 14 months. It was tragic for everyone involved, but something good came of it: Kauai’s tourism administration and communities took advantage of the downtime to not only rebuild, but to reimagine the way it handles its visitors.

The result was a series of new regulations, announced as the North Shore reopened to non-residents in July, aimed at managing the flow of traffic and, ultimately, controlling the number of daily visitors. A shuttle now runs the length of the North Shore, and parking spots must be reserved in advance.

While the new regulations may seem inconvenient to the average visitor from afar, requiring permits and advanced reservations, the feeling is that they will prove shrewd in the long run, especially in terms of environmental impact, overtourism, and overcrowding.

But it also does something else: It shows that Kauai is still focused on being a place of its own, a place where residents still control the fate of their island.

Which is great to see, because there’s no getting around tourism as the main industry in Hawaii (at least as it is presently constructed), and many residents across all the islands complain that the interests of visitors and tourism take precedence over the concerns of local residents. But by imposing these tight regulations on when and how people can visit certain areas, Kauai’s brass is showing that compromise is still possible.

Tunnels beach on the north shore Kauai

“[The North Shore of Kauai] is a rural community that is still rebuilding following the devastating floods last April and we ask that all visitors in the area be aware of the situation and respect the residents and new rules that have been put in place,” said Sue Kanoho, Executive Director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. “I strongly encourage visitors to familiarize themselves with the new guidelines and to review the Aloha Pledge which provides comprehensive information to ensure they have a positive experience.”

The Aloha Pledge is another example of how some Hawaiian communities are attempting to bridge the gap with visitors, reminding them that they are visiting someone’s home—not Disneyland—and that Hawaii is a complex place, like all destinations, worthy of respect.

Other areas of Hawaii, like Haleakala on Maui, have also imposed new regulations in recent years to help with overcrowding, environmental concerns, and local quality of life. Though visitors lose flexibility in their planning because they have to make reservations in advance, the idea is that the long-term result will benefit all by combating crowds and reducing the overall footprint on Hawaii’s natural environments—aka, Hawaii will stay Hawaii.

Napali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii.  (photo via Adam-Springer/ iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Most importantly, efforts to keep tourism reasonable—that is, to place more importance on the quality of local life than the bottom line – will improve the relationship between locals and visitors. Sometimes, governments and tourism boards forget that residents are not just a component of the destination, they are the destination. Happy residents mean happy guests—and vice versa.

Don’t be surprised if we see more moves like this take place in the coming years throughout Hawaii, as the struggle to support the ever-growing number of visitors continues.