Tour operators benefit from tourism uptick, still face challenges

  • Laurel Smith/ The Garden Island

    Kayak Wailua guide Dan Fisher takes out a guided Kayak tour on Wednesday afternoon. Tours have significantly slowed down this week from last week’s Thanksgiving week rush. According to owner Pete Fisher the first two weeks of December tend to be some of the slowest weeks of the year between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

LIHU’E — Passenger air arrivals are up almost 14% from November 2019, but many tour operators have still not been able to return to full capacity after over a year of tight tourism restrictions that shuttered or downsized businesses island-wide.

The labor shortage is hitting tour operators hard.

Before the pandemic, Kaua‘i Backcountry Adventures had approximately 105 employees. Now, they’re operating with just 63.

According to General Manager Sean Stogner, he is only seeing about two applications a month.

“We are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it and we just can’t find any employees,” Stogner said. “It’s pretty rough.”

Despite offering raises and working overtime, the company is only able to work at about 80% capacity right now.

Small businesses are struggling to hire, too.

Na Pali Coast Hanalei Tours is down 47% gross volume from 2019 due to operating at half of their 2019 staff.

Hanalei businesses were particularly hit hard by labor shortage due to the March “Hanalei Hill” landslide work that limited access in and out of Hanalei through mid-October.

On the east side, Kayak Wailua is looking for a few guides and a driver. They are making it work with the staff they have and haven’t had to cancel any tours due to labor shortages, but operations can sometimes be a scramble.

For example, if a guide calls in sick, sometimes management will come in on their day off to guide or they may use a guide from another company.

“All the company owners get along really well,” said Kayak Wailua owner Pete Fisher. “So sometimes when we need help from another company, we can borrow an employee from someone else among our competitors.”

Several tour companies reported that employees moved off-island during the pandemic when tours were shuttered or operating at reduced capacity. Some of those positions still remain unfilled.

Mauna Loa Helicopter had two out of four office employees move off-island and the remaining office employees are working six days a week.

“We had at least 20 interviews. People no show, no call. People say they’re not interested,” said Kaua‘i office manager Shantell Durante.

The company also lost several pilots from other countries who were not able to renew their work visas because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. The company, however, is not facing a pilot shortage. They hire directly from their flight schools located on O‘ahu and Hawai‘i Island.

Businesses are increasing wages to attract workers, and that is not the only increased cost. Inflation, specifically rising increasing oil prices, has caused tour operators to take a big hit. Most tour operators are dependent on fuel in one way or another, whether it be to run a shuttle service or fly a helicopter. And other basic supplies can be hard to get and expensive.

According to Fisher, kayak prices have doubled or tripled in price since the start of the pandemic and there is a six-month wait to get any new boats for his rental fleet. At Kayak Wailua they have been investing in repairing and maintaining their current fleet of kayaks while they wait for their new arrivals.

For some businesses, supply chain problems have the potential to cripple operations.

At Kaua‘i Sea Tours, according to Reservations Manager Jessie Kahepuu, the company was well prepared with extra parts to handle boat maintenance, but has had trouble replacing the backup parts. “We’re pretty much at the bottom right now, hoping and praying that nothing else breaks because it’s hard to get it through the chain,” said Kahepuu.

Most businesses that responded to The Garden Island’s request for interview said that they have not passed on the cost to consumers yet.

“Our pricing is pretty much the same across the board as has been for the last three or four years. Because there’s a lot of competition on the West Side,” said Steven Baptiste, owner of Na Pali Coast Hanalei Tours owner Steven Baptiste.

Not all visitors have returned to Kaua‘i. “We are a little bit slower because there’s no cruise ships. The cruise ships do make a big difference,” said Durante at Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours.

Despite challenges, tour operators are grateful to have a thriving tourism scene once again.

“We’ve been very blessed to be able to work and have our company and our crew back at work. Definitely (visitors) are here now, that’s for sure!” said Na Pali Coast Hanalei Tours Office Manager Avelina Kuhaulua.

7 Comments
  1. nobody December 2, 2021 6:02 am Reply

    Kauai is facing a housing emergency. Renting will continue to be more expensive and homes harder to find. Homes on the market are snapped up with cash from wealthier people migrating here. The wealthy moving here will not be working at any of the jobs listed in this article.
    It appears our local government is incapable of addressing this emergency. Many countries around the world with are now solving housing issues with tiny houses and apartments.
    “We can do this Kauai!” Doesn’t seem like it.


  2. anonymous December 2, 2021 8:00 am Reply

    All this about struggling small businesses and no mention about how our great and benevolent county recently stripped an entire day of business away from all the kayak companies because of the complaints of some good-ol-boy fishermen.


  3. Burt Bonkstein December 2, 2021 8:51 am Reply

    The number 1 reason (not mentioned in the article) that small businesses will suffer and close is due to ……….super high housing costs. People are leaving because their housing costs are way too high (rents, home prices).

    This out-migration will continue until the housing price bubble bursts.


    1. nobody December 3, 2021 7:26 am Reply

      I don’t see what it takes to burst the housing bubble. That would be the wealthy not wanting to live on Kauai anymore.


  4. Locals Only December 2, 2021 3:42 pm Reply

    Its not Local families raising the prices, its all our new residents from California ,Texas and New Yorkers raising rent for GREED.


  5. jake December 2, 2021 6:58 pm Reply

    Nobody wants to work for you anymore, because people have finally gotten sick of “yes, massah” jobs.


  6. nobody1 December 3, 2021 12:20 pm Reply

    Our island is falling apart. There is NO housing for poor middle class. Businesses are suffering because of strict Covid mandates in place. Far less tourists are coming here because of strict rules with travel mandates. Cost of living is so high, only the wealthy can afford, while your regular working class suffers and diminishes, you can’t afford rent. You cannot survive this economy unless you are gettin food stamps and other Gov. handouts. Not to mention our horrible traffic conditions, and our extreme Local homelessness, and drug problems.


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