Tourism patterns have changed, but island infrastructure has not

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.”

17 Comments
  1. Ted Mack November 27, 2017 3:36 am Reply

    I understand that traffic enforcement fines such as those for parking and moving violations do not stay in the county where they are collected but go to Honolulu. If Kauai were allowed to keep this money it could be used for a lot of the things suggested here, such as civilian enforcement officers to give parking tickets, towing services, and impounding areas.


  2. Kathy Deutsch November 27, 2017 4:25 am Reply

    I am from the Mainland Midwest. I never dreamed I could travel to Hawaii. My father in law gifted my family with money for a trip in 1999. We went to a AAA travel agent and asked which island was quiet, rural and natural. She pointed us to Kauai.
    When we visit any place, we eat and shop local, and behave with aloha. I understand completely the frustration the locals have with us tourists.
    In order to slow tourism, it would be wise to tell travel agents and others who encourage tourism to be less aggressive in marketing. Also, I believe travel agents and community activists could teach a bit of “how to behave”.


  3. Wally Roberts November 27, 2017 4:55 am Reply

    My first visit to Kauai was in 1980 when the airport only had one runway. The drive to the north shore was a delight. Over the years my wife and I usually spent one month on the north shore most years. 2013 was our last time. Too much traffic and rental prices skyrocketed. Now the airport is increasing flights to absolute capacity. Those hotels and time shares what 90% capacity on an annual average. There’s no stopping it. The young generation is more mobile and willing to pay the prices.


  4. Josh solbach November 27, 2017 6:54 am Reply

    Just wait till all the middle class Chinese appear in the coming decades. You haven’t seen nothing in terms of how it will be in the future. Brace yourselves!!


  5. mike perius November 27, 2017 7:50 am Reply

    the county cant do a lot but one thing they can do is to revoke all vacation rental permits outside the VDA’s immediately. anyone support this?


  6. Dave O November 27, 2017 8:43 am Reply

    A good start would be for the County to actually enforce their current order for owners at the Hanalei Bay Resort to remove the 100+ illegal lockouts.

    And by the way, enforcing the law would also be a good start in relieving the terrible parking situation there. It wouldn’t solve the parking issue but it would sure be a good start.


  7. PauloT November 27, 2017 9:34 am Reply

    Can’t remember how long ago it was that we sent our comments in to the state about the Haena plan. I do remember plenty of us were not for spending funds on boardwalks and interpretive kiosks. How about give residents unlimited access and limited parking for rental cars. Who wants to drive up from Kapaa or Anahola only to find no parking. That’s why many of us don’t go anymore. Who’s island is it?


  8. Kelsey November 27, 2017 10:04 am Reply

    One thing that may help with the increased number of visitors to the island is making sure the laws that are currently on the books are being enforces, specifically those related to lock-outs. There have been other articles on this site that have talked about the fact that the Hanalei Bay Resort owner’s association is still allowing it’s owners to have lock-outs, which increase the number of visitors to the island. If the laws were enforced so that lock-outs did not happen, that would be one way to reduce the number of visitors to the island.


    1. Lee November 27, 2017 3:12 pm Reply

      I live on the South Shore. What’s a “lock-out” and how does it increase congestion on the North Shore? Mahalo.


      1. BK in HB November 28, 2017 4:52 am Reply

        Aloha Lee,
        Many condos have been built in order to be rented out separately, with 2 private entrances -a lockout. Take for instance a typical 2bd 2ba condo at Hanalei Bay Resort. It can be rented 3 ways- as a full 2/2, a 1bd 1ba or a studio with 1 bath. The owner normally gets higher revenues to rent them out individually, so most have been set up that way, thus increasing the number of vehicles and visitors in many cases. In the end the County most likely will do nothing about this because they are collecting the extra taxes for dual rentals.


        1. the aina November 29, 2017 12:25 pm Reply

          BK

          You are correct about many condos have been built in order to be rented out separately, with 2 private entrances -a lockout. However, very few of them have County approval. Having a separate entrance does not mean they are approved by the County. Also, do not be so naive to think that the County is collecting taxes on these “lock-outs”. Chances are that the owners of the non-permitted lockouts probably have only one GET and TAT number and are renting them out without the County’s knowledge. Also, there is an easy way to cheat the County by only showing income for that particular time of one unit and not the other since it does not have a separate Tax ID number. Don’t forget most of these condos were built in the 70’s and 80’s and do not have adequate infrastructure to support the larger increase in traffic within their complex. The obvious one being parking. There are many places in the north shore where this is a huge problem. Also allowing for these illegal lockout rentals on a short term basis places a greater burden on the already scarce and exorbitant long-term housing on not only the north shore but the entire island. Perhaps you are one of these violators of the lockouts???


  9. Ex Castillo November 27, 2017 10:14 am Reply

    Vacation rental is a new way of lodging. Perhaps, some are unaware of it but its existence has immersed and becoming more and more popular. No matter where you are taking your stay or a holiday, you are going to make sure you have the best accommodation for the time away. And importantly, somehow it would fit the monetary capability of the one looking for that place to stay. Vacation rental offers convenience as it offers the best benefits the one looking for. Rentalo.com is a great site that helps vacation rental owners find travelers. You can add your listings for free and then pay a fee when booked – check details at http://rentalo.com.


    1. mike perius November 27, 2017 2:22 pm Reply

      hey ex castillo, thanks for the post, it points out the problem perfectly that people ( like you ) from elsewhere dont care about vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, or the ripple affects of lack of local housing or the impacts from these zoning violations on US the general public. Instead you’d rather be promoting rentals s website to add to the problem. Therein lies the first issue our county must address, removing all vacation rentals from areas other than VDA’S.


  10. Lee November 27, 2017 10:27 am Reply

    Our parking fines go to State? It’s like the resort taxes that mostly go to State, much of it paying for the Oahu rail project. I’ve learned that State capped County’s share of those funds. We used to get resort fees back on Kaua‘i, but now we get a small fraction. I’d like TGI to report the details of the current tax balance between State and Kaua‘i County. I suspect our little island is getting short-changed.


  11. randy kansas November 28, 2017 5:29 am Reply

    until the State of Hawaii moves from around 48th in the nation, as places to conduct business, these problems will persist;


  12. Anonymous November 28, 2017 7:11 am Reply

    How about a small tax/charge for tourists who arrive in the airport on Kauai like they have in other countries that goes towards infrastructure? Love the idea of an open air bus that takes you from Princeville airport- Ke’e and lets you jump on and off exploring beaches, Hanalei and Princeville town. Most people would spend $25 or more for a day pass to explore the North Shore. How about encouraging more people to use mopeds? Or making bike lanes on the roads so we can ride bikes safely?!! How about stop building massive hotels and let all people of Kauai rent out a room or two (airb+b) to guests so that everyone can benefit from tourism instead of large hotels and timeshare companies? The only VDA on the North Shore is Princeville… Princeville used to be an area that Kauai families could afford. Now families are forced to purchase in Kilauea instead since Princeville has gone up in value with people purchasing many of the homes/condos for use as vacation rentals. I would prefer to see more homestays and local bed and breakfasts. I also think it is crazy that you cannot rent rooms on a farm. Agro-tourism is HUGE in other parts of the world (Europe and Napa valley for example). Farmers benefit when they can offer rooms at their farm and farm tours/retreats in addition to added value products and normal farm activities. Just some ideas 🙂


  13. Norm Smith November 28, 2017 4:47 pm Reply

    In my humble opinion…. It is time to regulate the number of tourists who come to Kauai.. and all Hawaii Nei Hopefully your elected officials will see that… If not protect your children


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