Tourism Vs. The Environment

A warm welcome is a tradition in Hawaii, and last year a record number of tourists descended on the islands, headed for everything from crowded Waikiki to beaches just for two. One vacationer's dream, however, can be an environmentalist's nightmare.

So when the state Tourism Authority went to spend $114 million to lure even more tourists, the Sierra Club went to state Supreme Court with an unprecedented suit. It claimed the law requires an environmental impact study before spending taxpayer dollars, even on tourism.

To Jeff Mikulina of the Sierra Club, the suit is about keeping a good thing from going out of control.

"We had about 7 million tourists last year. Can that go to 10 million, can that go to 20 million? We have some of the most beautiful, beautiful shoreline and scenic areas and they're under constant development pressure," Mikulina said.

It's pressure that transformed Waikiki from a pristine paradise a century ago, to isolated playground in the 1920s, to what you see today — a garish, overcrowded land of traffic, road tar and concrete.

"Waikiki is one thing," Mikulina said, "but do we want this on every island?

If the state Supreme Court sides with the environmentalists, it could set a precedent that, as CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, could affect every state that welcomes tourists and their dollars.

That would be too much for Bob Fishman, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "what the Sierra Club is asking for is pretty draconian," Fishman said.

The head of the state Tourism Authority says environmental impact studies are for things like logging roads and mines. Besides, Hawaii without tourists is like a burger without fries.

"This is the United States of America! We can't stop people from traveling to Hawaii from other states," Fishman said. "It's unconstitutional!"

"And yes, tourism is our number-one industry. In 1999, tourists spent over $10 billion in the state of Hawaii and this comes back to the state in the form of taxes and all that," said Mazie Hirono, the state's lieutenant governor.

This single lawsuit isn't just troubling for state officials in what many consider a slice of paradise. Like a pebble dropped in water, it's sending ripples across the Pacific. Officials in other state fear it could crash like a tidal wave on the mainland's tourism industry.

That's why Nevada and other tourist-dependent states tried to join Hawaii in fighting the suit. They fear its true intent isn't to study tourism, but curtail it. Hawaii environmentalists insist they just want to manage it.

"If we don't manage it (tourism), then you're going to end up with Southern California on the shores of Hawaii," said John Harrison, an environmentalist at the University of Hawaii.

More tourists are expected this year — proof, state officials say, that people love Hawaii. The question is, wil they love it to death?