HONOLULU — The sandy cove and turquoise, reef-patched, shallow waters of Oahu's Hanauma Bay are rimmed by palm trees and volcanic cliffs.
It is just the image that draws millions of vacationers to Hawaii each year, making tourism its No. 1 industry.
But below the surface, precious corals that grow an average of an inch a year are being crunched by reef-hopping snorkelers who leave behind balding coral heads, a sign of coral death. Tanning oils leave slicks on the sea. And radiant reef fish are outnumbered by larger, duller varieties fattened by years of feeding by humans.
To the Sierra Club, Hanauma Bay is just one of many natural island treasures in danger of being enjoyed to death.
The San Francisco-based conservation group wants the Aloha State to consider that danger before launching an aggressive marketing plan aimed at luring more visitors than the nearly 6.9 million who came last year.
In a unique lawsuit before the Hawaii Supreme Court, the group wants the state to assess the environmental impact of taxpayer-funded tourism campaigns.
"Overcrowded beaches, strained natural resources, clogged roadways and overburdened natural areas--these are the tangible effects of increasing visitor arrivals," said Jeff Mikulina, director of the club's Hawaii chapter.
A Blow to Economy
A Sierra Club victory could deliver a staggering blow to Hawaii's economy and spawn similar lawsuits against the federal government, the other 49 states and countless municipalities, observers say.
Several mainland industry groups--including the National Tour Assn., the American Hotel and Motel Assn., the Travel Industry Assn. of America and the Western States Tourism Policy Council--have formed a coalition opposing the lawsuit.
"If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Sierra Club, then virtually every other major tourist attraction that is a public resource is subject to identical scrutiny," said Thomas Tait, executive director of Nevada's Commission on Tourism.
Tait said 38 states and the federal government have environmental protection laws like the Hawaii statute cited in the Sierra Club lawsuit, although Hawaii's is more stringent than most. The federal law could be used to try to curtail public access to the more popular national parks such as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Florida Everglades, he said.
Hawaii tourism, an $11.6-billion-a-year industry, generates a third of the state's gross product and creates a third of its jobs.
At issue is a three-year, $117-million contract the Hawaii Tourism Authority awarded in October to the nonprofit Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau to market the Aloha State. The authority's $60-million annual budget is funded by hotel room taxes.
The lawsuit accuses the authority of ignoring a state law requiring government agencies to go through an environmental review process, complete with public hearings, before spending public funds.
Coming at a time when Hawaii's economy shows signs it may finally awaken from a nine-year slumber, the lawsuit has struck a sour note with the visitor industry and its supporters in state government.
The state is struggling to regain visitors it lost during the Asian financial crisis. The annual visitor count fell from 6.9 million in 1997 to 6.7 million in 1998, even while the humming U.S. economy boosted arrivals from the mainland. Arrivals rose slightly last year to 6.85 million.
"Our economy has bottomed out and we're moving forward," said Robert Fishman, the authority's executive director. "This has the potential to hurt that recovery."
Fishman called the lawsuit "patently ridiculous" and said the law cited by the Sierra Club was intended only for major state-funded capital-improvement projects--roads and bridges, for instance--not government services.
But some legal experts say the law leaves room for disagreement on that point. A bill advancing in the Hawaii Legislature explicitly would exempt the tourism authority from the environmental review requirements cited in the lawsuit.
Any suspension of marketing activities would cause Hawaii to lose vacationers to other popular spots such as Mexico and the Caribbean, Fishman said. An environmental impact study also could cost millions of dollars and be an unwieldy undertaking, he said.
"Where do you start and where do you stop?" Fishman said. "Would every aspect of the economy that touches tourism be included?"
Mikulina said the state cannot afford not to do the study.
"No amount of marketing will undo certain damage," he said. "In this global community, if word gets out that Hawaii is overrun and it's not the paradise it used to be, then our tourist economy is done for."
Sarah Halliwell, 25, a flight attendant vacationing in Hawaii from Vancouver, B.C., said the state has already lost some of its charms because of tourism overdevelopment, particularly in Waikiki. She said she prefers the outer, more rural islands to Oahu, where Honolulu reminds her of her own bustling hometown.