• Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series looking at tourism’s impact on Kauai.
A longtime Kauai resident was reminiscing a few days ago about the North Shore 40 years ago. He was talking about driving toward Ke‘e Beach from Kapaa.
“There was so little traffic that I went all the way through Kapaa once, driving in the left lane, and didn’t encounter a single other car,” he said.
Fast forward to today. Many locals have simply given up on getting to Haena State Park. Legal parking areas are often filled beyond capacity. Illegally parked cars — mostly rentals — line both sides of Kuhio Highway, sometimes making it hard for emergency vehicles to get through to rescue people from the Kalalau Trail, where they may have unwisely ventured during a storm.
There are no capacity controls at Haena and visitor counts often exceed 2,000 people per day. But even that may be an underestimate.
“We haven’t conducted comprehensive park visitor counts in a decade,” said Alan Carpenter, assistant administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, “but it is clear that visitation has increased to unprecedented levels.”
Carpenter, an archaeologist by training, has spent years working on projects in the park. He is charged with implementing a community-driven master plan there.
“Haena State Park,” he said, “is an extreme example.”
Long-time island residents and business owners noted that a fundamental change has occurred in tourism in the last few years. Before about five years ago, there were well-defined slack periods — between Thanksgiving weekend and just before Christmas. Visitor volumes dropped off to a fraction of their levels during busy times. Communities, and the island’s ecosystems, had a breather from time to time.
But that pattern no longer holds true.
“What used to be the valleys in the tourist season are filled now,” said Joel Guy, who was born, raised and still lives in Hanalei. “Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanalei would be a ghost town.”
The state, Guy contended, “should absolutely be redirecting funds now spent by the Hawaii Tourism Authority to market Hawaii as a visitor destination to rejuvenating facilities that serve visitor and tourist recreation needs alike.
“None of the parking lots I grew up with is any bigger than when I was a kid. There’s not one playground from the Hanalei River bridge to Ke‘e. That’s an insane situation. We’ve been overly marketed without the infrastructure.”
Polly Phillips, a 32-year resident of Wainiha, agrees with the elements of the county General Plan Update that’s still under review by the County Council, but she’s also a bit cynical about it.
“What parts of the last General Plan (10 years ago) have actually been implemented? I can leave my house (on Powerhouse Road above Kuhio Highway) at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and all I see is a stream of cars,” she said.
“It’s like where are you (tourists) coming from and where are you going? The change (over time) is the extra patience you have to exhibit.”
Phillips is especially upset by the role vacation rental properties — legal and not — play in disrupting the community. A vacation rental house near where she lives is loud and rowdy so often, she said, “that I’ve gone over there and pounded on the door.” A better job must be done, she said, “of keeping tourism in designated visitor zones.”
Both Guy and Phillips support the idea of making the last two miles of Kuhio Highway a tow-away zone. Conversations with North Shore residents found surprisingly broad support for such a drastic step, though people interviewed said accommodations would have to be worked out to meet the needs or surfers and the fishing community.
“We all have to be in this together,” Guy said. “We need to take care of this place. Because tourism is so maxed out, you have to have people in the visitor business slow this down.”
As things stand today toward the end of the road, the Kauai Police Department tries to issue parking tickets, but is often busy with more serious calls. The department doesn’t have the budget to afford civilian parking enforcement officers. Towing illegally parked cars is, from a practical standpoint, not feasible.
The pending Haena master plan would address many of the park’s problems, except that there is no money to implement it, in part because the revenue model is stacked against progress.
Parking fines are an example. All of the revenue from the $35 tickets goes to the state. The fine, said Rep. Nadine Nakamura, one of three Kauai members of the state House of Representatives, is too low to deter illegal parking by visitors, who simply see it as another minor cost in a vacation in which they are spending thousands of dollars.
But Haena can’t go on this way, say Nakamura, other elected officials and a host of North Shore residents, including the guy who once drove the wrong way all through Kapaa and didn’t see another car.
“The community has worked long and hard on the plan,” Nakamura said. “A lot of thought and discussion went into it. I’d like to help make the plan a reality.”
“The bottom line is that the Haena State Park, the road to it and the series of one-lane bridges were never designed to accommodate 2,000 visitors a day,” she continued. “It’s degrading the resource and negatively impacting the surrounding community.
“Other communities around the state are developing reservation systems for park access, charging user fees for visitors and closing gates once visitor capacities have been met. It’s time for Kauai to adopt some of these practices and give our residents the opportunity to enjoy our natural resources.”
The master plan’s main elements have been known for many months. Park capacity would be reduced from the current 2,000 people per day to 900. The existing auxiliary parking lot would become the only parking, except for spaces for disabled users at the end of the road. A boardwalk would carry people from the parking lot to the beach. A major effort would be made to rejuvenate the loi and other native vegetation. Restroom facilities would be moved farther away from the beach.
But there is apparently growing recognition that Haena is so stressed that the situation needs at least partial resolution much earlier than funds are expected to be available — which won’t be for several years. So, according to Carpenter, Nakamura and others familiar with organizing a response for Haena’s dilemma, these elements will apparently get priority, though legislation may be necessary to take some of the steps:
w The last two miles of Kuhio Highway would be re-posted as a tow-away “no parking” area. Violations would rise in price from $35 to as much as $250. A storage lot for towed cars would have to be established and towing contractors recruited.
w A public education campaign would be necessary so visitors are prepared for the parking and access restrictions. The expectation is that, after a few months, the new parking rules would be well enough known that the stiff fines would be an effective deterrent.
w A remote parking facility would be opened at Princeville Airport, where a temporary visitor center would be established. At least some state officials believe the airport itself should be purchased by the state for use as a visitor entry center for Haena State Park.
w A shuttle system would be introduced in which visitors would pay fares high enough to substantially defray its costs. Nakamura noted, however, that it’s virtually impossible to run any public transit system and break even, so some county or state subsidy would be necessary.
But, said Carpenter, “nothing gets built without money. We are requesting funding for various parks projects, including Haena. The Legislature has been receptive in recent years and we hope the generosity will continue.
“We’ve been less successful in growing our staff numbers, an important part of our ability to serve the public and manage the resources under our care. We presently have 125 positions, down from 180 in 1990. That’s a 30 percent decrease in staffing in 27 years, despite significant increases in visitation and park acreage.
“I think everyone is committed to finding appropriate solutions to benefit the local community.”