The economic impact to Hawaii of Waikiki Beach was recently estimated at $2.2 billion a year, but the crumbling Royal Hawaiian groin and other man-made structures are all that is keeping the state’s most visited beach from being swept away.
The concrete groin was erected around 1927 to protect structures along the coastline and to create the sandy beach that has made Waikiki so famous. It’s been failing for years with no immediate timeline for replacement until now.
The state budget passed by the Legislature this year includes some $13 million in Waikiki Beach funding, enough to shore up the Royal Hawaiian groin, located between the between the Waikiki Sheraton and Royal Hawaiian hotels, and return a groin to Kuhio Beach where erosion periodically exposes old foundation from the Waikiki Tavern, which was built in 1928 and demolished in 1962.
It’s also enough to fund a $10 million Waikiki Beach Master Plan that would include another four or so projects.
“This is the largest appropriation for beach improvements on Oahu in recent memory. It allows us to move forward on several projects that have been discussed on and off for decades,” said Dolan Eversole, Waikiki Beach management coordinator for the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program.
“That’s a good thing since people are starting to see the reality of sea level rise on Waikiki Beach,” said Eversole, who is coordinating a private partnership between the state Department of Land and Natural
Resources and the Waikiki Beach Special
Improvement District Association. “There used to be a wait-and-see sentiment among some, especially the Waikiki beach boys, but there has been a shift in overall perception and people seem to feel that we can’t wait any longer to address these challenges.”
Much is at stake since Waikiki Beach is the epicenter of Oahu’s visitor industry. Last year, the island welcomed more than 5.9 million tourists, or about 60% of the state’s total count of nearly 10 million visitors. They accounted for more than $8 billion in visitor spending, or about 46% of the statewide tally of $17.8 billion.
To put it bluntly, Waikiki Beach is synonymous with Hawaii, said Nerida Abbott,
a repeat visitor from Melbourne, Australia.
“In Australia, Waikiki is better known than Oahu. Waikiki Beach is the main attraction. It’s the reason everyone wants to come to Hawaii,” said Abbott, who was traveling in a family party of 10. “We came in 2017. If Waikiki Beach wasn’t here, we probably wouldn’t have come back.”
Abbott, who was frolicking on the beach with her family near the Duke Kahanamoku statute, was excited to hear about planned beach improvements, especially since she noted that portions of Kuhio Beach are much narrower than the sandy stretch fronting the Hilton Hawaiian Village at the opposite end of Waikiki.
“It would be great to have more space here,” she said.
Chris Tatum, president and CEO of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, said the agency supports the state’s efforts to protect Waikiki Beach, which is an iconic place for locals and visitors to enjoy.
“Waikiki Beach’s historic and cultural significance dates back to Mailikukahi, who established his seat of government here in the 15th century. Today, it is one of the most renowned beaches in the world and is also tremendously important to the Hawaii brand image,” Tatum said.
Eversole said the new push is the most exciting news for the district since 2015, when the Honolulu City Council approved the creation of the Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District Association, which this year will raise about
$1 million from assessments levied on commercial operators in the special tax district bounded by Kapahulu Avenue, Ala Wai Canal and Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor. Now in its fourth year, the association has allowed Waikiki businesses to partner with the city and state to plan for and fund services and improvements to Waikiki Beach. In addition to funding half of the Kuhio and Royal Hawaiian groin costs, the association has committed to covering approximately $3 million of the master plan’s cost.
Last year, the Royal Hawaiian groin project didn’t make it into the state budget, but this year lawmakers universally agreed that it and more was needed, said Rep. Tom Brower (D,Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako).
“The Legislature was always willing to put the money there provided it was ready to be spent on the right projects,” Brower said. “The timing of this was right. Now we have people who can oversee the future management of these erosive areas.”
Brower said there is growing realization that man-made Waikiki Beach needs constant intervention or “it’s only a matter of time before nature takes it back.”
“The climate is also changing and we have a challenge called global warming. We know that it’s likely that we’ll see more drastic sea patterns and high tides. We have to prepare,” he said.
Waikiki’s latest beach overhaul will start late this summer or early fall with the Kuhio Beach groin, a 95-foot-long wall comprising 2.5-ton sandbags set in the water to help block the wave action that has created an erosion hot spot at the old Waikiki Tavern site, said Sam Lemmo, DLNR’s administrator for the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.
Work on the Royal Hawaiian groin was opposed by Save Our Surf in 2017, delaying construction. However, Lemmo said Save Our Surf’s concerns have now been addressed and the project has been permitted. Construction on a 180-foot, T-head rock-wall groin, which engineers say would provide better protection from the summer swells and high sea levels that imperil Waikiki’s coast, is slated to begin in the first three months of 2020.
Waikiki Improvement Association President Rick Egged said the changes can’t come soon enough.
“You can actually put your hand underneath (the Royal Hawaiian groin). It’s not even sitting on the bottom, it’s only hanging on by its attachment to the sea wall. If this wall would fail, we’d lose this entire beach,” Egged said. “Maintenance of the beach is critical.”
Also coming, likely within the next two years, is an environmental impact study identifying four or so projects for three priority areas: Kuhio Beach and the beaches fronting the Royal Hawaiian and Halekulani hotels. Lemmo said it will be patterned around key concerns identified by a Waikiki Beach Advisory Committee, formed as an offshoot of the tax district association and made up of a broad range of stakeholders from Save Our Surf and other ocean users to businesses and residents, he said.
“This is certainly a new benchmark. There have been lots of studies done in Waikiki, but we’ve never done a master plan or a major EIS to identify restoration projects,” Lemmo said. “It’s a lot more efficient if you are able to come up with a number of plans and ideas. If you can tie it together, you run a higher probability of being successful and staying ahead of the curve.”
While at least 50% of the sand has remained in Waikiki since a $2.3 million sand replenishment in 2012, Lemmo said it’s time to address erosion, beach width and lateral walking access again.
“Waikiki Beach is a manufactured beach that came out of a major sand renourishment in the 1930s. The infrastructure is aging. Chronic erosion is accelerating and will continue to do so with sea level rise. We have to manage it and we need projects in the pipeline so we can get ahead of the climate change and sea-level-rise curve.
“You cannot just not do anything and let it deteriorate. If your objective is to maintain Waikiki as a visitor destination, the beach is a vital part of that infrastructure,” he said.