LIHUE — With nature and infrastructure overwhelmed and record-breaking visitor numbers, state and county officials are looking for balance on Kauai.
It’s a topic with many threads — infrastructure and transportation, housing and the state budget, social media and access to shorelines and fishing grounds — and it’s in the shadow of 2017’s record arrivals, a total of almost 1.3 million people. This year’s numbers through August total 951,257 arrivals.
“We have the plans, let’s dive into it,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. Thursday morning at Lihue Business Association’s annual meeting. “There is transitioning happening as we speak.”
Plans have been rolled out that officials say could help — plans like the Kauai General Plan and the recently released 2019-2021 Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan.
The LBA meeting’s focus was “visitor impact on Kauai.” Carvalho was joined by Kauai Visitors Bureau Executive Director Sue Kanoho and State Parks assistant administrator Alan Carpenter to talk about finding a win-win for residents, visitors and the environment throughout the island and specifically at Haena State Park.
A plan to revamp the management of the so-called “end of the road” on the North Shore has been in the works for decades, with the goal to reduce Haena State Park’s visitors from a daily 2,000 to 900.
Damage from April flooding made that plan a priority for State Parks and workers are already starting repairs and construction on a replacement parking lot with an entry that will accommodate a shuttle stop.
“We’re in a unique situation,” Carpenter said. “We are the verge of finalizing a plan and then April came and all of the sudden we were faced with a crisis. Through scrambling we’ve been able to turn that into an opportunity.”
To make it happen, State Parks took money from some of their other projects throughout the state and funneled it to the Haena project, with the hopes of being reimbursed with federal funds.
“Once a park is essentially broken, it’s pushed to the top of the list,” Carpenter said.
Those same April rains forced the closure of Kuhio Highway west of Waipa and closure of Napali Coast State Wilderness Park and Haena, and a checkpoint was set up that restricts the area to residents and others with an official reason to be there.
Original state predictions were that the road would be potentially open by the end of October, but a recent release pushed the finish date to late January, and maybe even later into 2019.
“The goal is to have a park that will be ready to welcome visitors back when the road opens,” Carpenter said.
State parks are the backdrop for Hawaii Tourism Authority’s marketing and a major draw for visitors, officials say, and keeping the number of people in balance with the need to preserve nature is paramount to a thriving visitor industry.
“More (visitors) isn’t better for our parks,” Carpenter said. “Better quality is important.”
That motto of quality versus quantity is also woven into the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan, entitled “Refocusing Tourism To Find Balance.”
That document uses the term “quality of life” metrics to describe things like the quality of the visitor experience, the impact of the visitor industry on local residents and the environment, and the quality of life for visitor industry employees.
Kanoho said the strategy outlined in the 2019-2021 plan for Kauai comes from a different angle than in the past.
“I don’t think it’ll be the status quo of more and more (increasing visitor numbers), it’ll be finding the right visitors to match the island,” Kanoho said.
That means a focus on connecting with visitors who are looking for what Kauai has to offer — for instance, targeting hikers and outdoors enthusiasts, and suggesting Oahu or Maui for those who want lively nightlife and an Ala Moana-type experience.
Some ideas being explored to help find balance are using shuttles and multi-modal transportation to move people from community to community, putting limits on visitor numbers in parks and charging entry and parking fees in Koke’e, and getting a handle on illegal vacation rentals.
“We’re not going to do this alone, it’s going to take us working together,” Kanoho said. “It’s a matter of managing what we have and helping people understand how to visit responsibly.”
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.