Tour companies lose permits for Saturday tours on Wailua River

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    A guided kayak tour with Kayak Wailua leaves from the Wailua River boat ramp earlier this month. Starting this month, companies are no longer permitted to run guided tours or rent kayaks for the Wailua River on Saturdays.

WAILUA — Starting this month, kayak-tour operators and rental companies are no longer allowed to operate tours on the Wailua River on Saturdays.

With Sundays already restricted, this limits guided tours to weekdays moving forward.

The change came as a shock to companies which were notified of the restriction at a meeting on Nov. 22, less than two weeks before the permitting change would go effect on Dec. 4. Immediately, companies with advanced holiday bookings began contacting clients with Saturday reservations to reschedule or cancel tours.

Losing Saturday bookings will come as a financial hit.

Will Leonard of Rainbow Kayaks and Ancient River Kayaks estimates the reduction of an operating day will cost his companies between 17% and 20% of revenue.

While it is too soon to tell, between the fluctuations in tourism due to the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty of the weather, predicting the full effect of the change is difficult to calculate.

“I don’t even know, honestly, if the business will be viable,” Leonard said. “We’re going to have to get through winter, hope there’s not too much rain and see where we’re at.”

Some companies expect to be less-hard-hit than others by the change, but part of that comes down to permitting. More permits provide flexibility to companies trying to fit their booking into a Monday-through-Friday schedule, but permits are limited.

“A single company can only have two permits, but a single person can have two companies and each company could have two permits,” Pete Fisher, owner of Kayak Wailua and Polynesian Kayak Adventures, said.

Between the two companies Fisher owns, he has three permits allowing his guides to take up to six tours a day.

Fisher believes that he will still be able to accommodate most of his guests between existing permits, with one exception.

“It seems like most of our business on Saturdays are those folks that come from the neighbor islands,” said Fisher. “They come over Friday night, maybe early Saturday morning, and then they leave Sunday night.”

Kayak companies are on edge with the permitting situation.

Several tour-company owners requested to speak anonymously, not wanting to escalate tensions with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks or face retaliation from the sole permitting agency.

“They have the power to pull our permits at any time,” said one operator. “(If) we get together and start complaining, then they can say ‘OK, fine. We’ll just we’ll pull everybody’s permits.’”

The Garden Island has reached out to DLNR several times since Nov. 30 via email and phone but did not receive comment.

While there was a lot of confusion among kayak-company owners as to why there was an such abrupt permitting change, several companies said that the DLNR’s reason for discontinuing Saturday kayak permits was to give the Wailua River a day to rest.

Companies agree with the DLNR that the Wailua River and trail to Uluwehi Falls should be better managed.

“(Over summer) there were over 100 people up at the falls in the mid-day. And a lot of them were from the guided tours. I don’t know why there’s so many guided permits out there,” said one tour operator.

According to Fisher, the boat ramp can also be a place of congestion with tour companies, outriggers and fishermen all launching from the same location.

Tour companies do work collaboratively with DLNR on some of these issues, and regularly volunteer time and resources to trail maintenance, Leonard said.

However, dialogue between DLNR and companies about Saturday concerns just did not happen before the permitting decision was made.

“There was no discussion,” said Fisher. “They even kind of implied that they could cut out all the days.”


Laurel Smith, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0424 or

  1. MaiTai Cameron December 8, 2021 12:53 am Reply

    Is this your only income coming in? For the tour company owners. In all my life, i only tried Kayaking once when I was in high school. Easy. How much do you charge per person? Sales is your number one priority. This makes it tougher with the restrictions on the company.

  2. nobody December 8, 2021 6:27 am Reply

    Maybe DLNR has good reasons? If so, why don’t they tell us? I guess they don’t have to.

  3. Rev Dr Malama December 8, 2021 6:41 am Reply

    Bully tactics are not legal. The head of dlnr, Underwood, is consistently pulling fast moves to basically pat himself on the back… as he positions himself in the corruption of fake State politics and the top dog on Ige’s leash, Case, is related to the richest landowner who controls the access to said waters…. conflict of interest much????
    But as we read, the loopholes are plentiful for bucking the system, if not the weather!!!!

  4. Kauaidoug December 8, 2021 8:47 am Reply

    Better people have a guided tour up the river than people going all over the place on their own. If done wants to cut down on illegal behavior they should start by putting half hour parking signs at Wailua falls instead of hassling people trying to make a living selling. Expand that parking lot! I see cars damaged all the time trying to escape the black hole parking lot!

  5. Kauaidoug December 8, 2021 8:48 am Reply

    DLNR not done

  6. Doug December 8, 2021 9:38 am Reply

    “{Over summer) there were over 100 people up at the falls in the mid-day. And a lot of them were from the guided tours.” Finally, some regulation! Dare I hope that maybe those of us who live here can start enjoying our island again? And don’t forget, your precious “visitor experience” will be much more enhanced when there aren’t so many people crammed in there. I can’t wait for the cruise ships to come back (not!)! When the cruise ship tours are here the little viewing area across the highway at O’paeka’a Falls gets so many people on it at times that they spill over into the highway. What kind of visitor experience is that???!!!

  7. Kevin Collins December 8, 2021 9:39 am Reply

    This is a shame. After what these companies have been through the past to years, to all of a sudden pull 20% of their revenue is unjust. While these companies do have an impact on natural resources, they are also the ones teaching visitors and locals the most about respect to the area and good stewardship to the public lands. Companies like these end up LESSENING impacts to nature, as opposed to “do it yourselfers” who are not trained or watched.

    1. DUH December 8, 2021 12:10 pm Reply

      That’s a twisted perspective. As a local, born and raised, I am disgusted at the invasion of the tourist species, and the companies that transplant themselves here and then cry because their income is at risk. They’re not here to educate, they’re here to justify their existence to make a buck. No problem with that, but don’t kid yourself. Our island home is at risk. How many times I’ve gone down to enjoy a day off (from my tourism job) and I cannot find parking, or I have to be surrounded by tourists asking stupid questions or having to rescue them. WAH, no weekends for you??!! How you think the locals feel? And our days off aren’t always on Saturdays or Sundays.

  8. Bornnraised December 8, 2021 10:41 am Reply

    Mahalo nui loa DLNR! Malama Pono (We take care of it, it will take care of us) Wailua River has to many tour companies, should only be “Smith Ohana”. Show respect to locals who come with Ohana to enjoy day off on River. You dont live in Hawaii to make money, you enjoy God’s gifts.

    1. brokengone December 9, 2021 7:04 am Reply

      FYI, many born and raised locals make their living catering to tourists. Being an independent entrepreneur may offer a better living than a hourly wage offered by mainland corporation employers. Try to find a place to rent lately.

  9. Erik December 8, 2021 11:21 am Reply

    This is awesome!!!! Now fisherman can have a few days without all the kayaks scaring the fish away.

  10. Lawaibob December 8, 2021 12:29 pm Reply

    The river has been over-touristed for years. This is great news for locals who want to enjoy this special place once in a while without hordes of tourists around. I laughed out loud when I read the tour guide saying most of his Saturday guests are neighbor-island locals. Ya right. Lying doesn’t help argue your case. Poor baby you can no longer exploit the river on weekends. Get over it.

  11. Mike December 8, 2021 1:27 pm Reply

    More aloha showing.
    Hawaiis true colors are showing more and more!

  12. Pete Fisher December 8, 2021 3:07 pm Reply

    As a 47 year resident on Kauai, I have seen a lot of changes. There clearly has been excessive congestion at the Wailua River marina launch ramp. I sympathize with the fishermen, outrigger canoe clubs, and water skiers who patiently wait for the kayakers to remove their equipment from the ramp. When I drive my tours, I direct traffic on the ramp and ask kayakers to please respect the locals and allow them to launch and retrieve their boats without undue delays. It would be great if there was a designated ramp monitor to give fishermen (and others) priority when launching and retrieving. Another big problem is the growing number of “unpermitted” commercial kayak rental and tour operators. They do not pay any fees to the state, they might not have insurance, their customers do not follow the rules of the road on the river, their customers are trampling the sacred sites that are not on the designated trail, and the customers of the unpermitted operators are monopolizing the kayak parking area at the trailhead. This is a growing concern which is out of control. Enforcement cannot happen soon enough. I worry that the permitted operators’ reputations are suffering as a result of the recent influx of illegal kayak companies. I am hopeful that a remedy will come soon.

  13. File December 8, 2021 5:25 pm Reply

    File a complaint with the DOJ/FBI.

    If you have any information that will substantiate a claim.

    All complaints have a 90-180 day investigation protocol.

    You might not hear anything or might not see anything in the news but something will be done.

  14. Emily Ellsworth December 8, 2021 6:54 pm Reply

    I just did a Kayak Tour last month. It was a highlight of our trip. So beautiful. Our guides were so very careful to follow the rules. If the tour companies needed to increase their prices to offset the loss on Saturday, I would be happy to pay more. It would definitely be worth it!

  15. TrustinYAH December 9, 2021 6:50 am Reply

    Have your attorney check out “Young vs: Aguran” case. It could clear up the issue about the State over ruling the use of USA navigable waters.

  16. Ola December 9, 2021 7:55 am Reply

    So thankful locals can enjoy Wailua river on Saturday and Sundays…. Now how can we expand this protection to other places???

  17. Melissa B August December 15, 2021 5:23 pm Reply

    I completely understand that the river needs a rest, but as a tourist who booked a kayak tour on Christmas day months ago I find this edict extremely frustrating and disheartening. I can’t fathom why they gave no consideration to the tourists who had existing reservations. Why was the stoppage put into affect immediately? Why couldn’t they have given a grace period? Two weeks before Christmas and there’s absolutely no open reservations for other activities left. I spoke with the Kauai Dept of Tourism and they agree. The parks department handled this terribly. They should have at least honored existing reservations for the immediate future and told the operators to take no future bookings.

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