It wasn’t all smooth riding when a 2-mile stretch of Kauai’s Kuhio Highway opened Monday, restoring access to some of the Garden Isle’s most popular tourist attractions under new tourism management guidelines.
There was praise for the implementation of a new Ha‘ena State Park Master Plan, which limits visitation to 900 people a day from an estimated 3,000 daily before flooding closed the main artery in April 2018. But there were plenty of complaints about tourists driving fast, hogging one-lane bridges, parking illegally, walking on reefs and spraying reef-harming sunscreen.
“Ke‘e Beach and the Ha‘ena State Park Master Plan seem to be going really well — except for some concerns about ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) access, which the community will work to address,” said Megan Wong, who belongs to the Old Hanalei Courthouse Hui, a nonprofit helping the community recover from the flooding that devastated Kauai’s north shore and closed parts of its highway to nonlocal traffic for more than a year.
“Major concerns are that we didn’t get the enforcement that we were promised. There are cars everywhere, even in front of no-parking signs and blocking emergency access. Tourists are damaging the reefs by walking all over them and spraying sunscreen. Residents are getting flipped off at the bridges,” Wong said. “It’s getting as crowded as Disneyland again, and that’s not a good thing.”
>> More photos of Kuhio Highway opening
Kauai’s infamous protesters elected to take a wait-and-see approach for Monday’s reopening. However, if their latest concerns aren’t addressed, they say they still could give civil disobedience a green light. They’re hoping to meet today with Larry Dill, the state Department of Transportation’s district engineer for Kauai.
DOT wasn’t readily available to respond to the Star-Advertiser on Monday, but those familiar with Kauai know such a meeting might not resolve complaints. Kauai protesters in 2007 formed a human blockade that kept the Hawaii Superferry from docking at Nawiliwili Harbor, which is under DOT jurisdiction. Earlier this year a small protest briefly blocked DOT from starting construction on Waioli Bridge because some community members were angered that the agency hadn’t briefed them about reconstruction plans.
A big protest timed to the reopening of Kuhio Highway had been planned for May 1, but delays by the state created an opportunity for dialogue with community groups concerned about the impacts from the return of tourists to popular north shore parks and beaches.
Wong said Monday that cooler heads still were trying to push a tourism educational campaign called the Aloha Pledge rather than staging protests.
But Monday’s reopening was a rude awakening for Lumahai, Wainiha and Haena, which were cut off from the rest of the isle when flooding cleanup and repairs on the highway began.
Residents had gotten used to a nearly tourism- free existence since an April 14-15, 2018, storm produced approximately 50 inches of rain in a 24-hour period shuttering popular attractions, including the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, Ha‘ena State Park, Kee Beach, Kalalau Trail, Haena Beach Park and Limahuli Garden & Preserve.
Many in the region clamored for the state to open the roadway and were disappointed by delays. However, others dreaded restored access and its potential to unleash a flood of tourists on a region that had been challenged to support them. The combined population of Kauai’s isolated north shore communities was only 749 in the 2010 census. Last year nearly 1.38 million tourists visited Kauai — up about 8% from 2017. The number of tourists visiting Ha‘ena State Park is an estimated 730,000 or more annually.
The Ha‘ena State Master Plan, which drastically reduces daily visitation to Haena, took effect Monday and drew mixed reviews. It also includes a new reservation system for park entrance, a shuttle to reduce the number of vehicles traveling into the park, higher fines for illegal parking, tougher enforcement and a new parking lot, which limits parking to 100 spaces.
Lance Riley, a frequent visitor to Kauai from Texas, planned his trip around the road reopening and reserved one of the coveted parking spots making for a convenient visit to Kee Beach on Monday morning.
“Last time we went to Kee Beach, parking was such a challenge; there were potholes and cars all over,” said Riley, whose family has averaged a trip to Kauai every other year for the past 15 years. “It’s a great thing that they’ve done. It will limit the number of visitors because there is a finite amount of parking. They’ve also done a terrific job with the parking lot and the boardwalk to access the beach.”
But locals Amithea Love and Juliet Akana said they fear changes will limit access for the disabled, since those with handicapped parking placards weren’t allowed to park in the old lot nearest Kee Beach and instead were directed to park in the new lot near the new boardwalk, which is about a half-mile from the beach.
Akana, who has an autistic son, said she was told that she could drop him off by the lifeguard tower and then park and walk to meet him.
“They are assuming that every disabled person can be left unattended, and that’s simply not the case. I don’t think the boardwalk is accessible, either — it’s made of mixed surfaces, including gravel,” said Akana, who is making complaints to the county and state.
Love said she is concerned park policies aren’t inclusive of all disabilities.
“My dad isn’t able to walk, so if he isn’t allowed to park close to Kee Beach, someone would have to go with him. That’s a strain on his independence,” she said.
Some Kauai residents also are concerned about illegal parking. They hope Friday’s start of the Hanalei Initiative’s new shuttle service, www. hanaleiinitiative.org/the- shuttle, will take cars off the road, allowing visitors and residents a less congested Haena experience.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said all 75 nonresident parking spots at Ha‘ena State Park were sold Monday, but DLNR doesn’t yet have a count of the number of people who visited the park for its reopening.
Dennison said all of the state park’s new features were built to be ADA compliant and were reviewed and surveyed by DLNR’s ADA compliance officer. He said the agency is aware of illegal-parking problems and plans to gather information to see what happened and how to improve in the coming days.
“As state parks and other partners have indicated for several months, the reopening with this new management paradigm was definitely going to have some kinks, bugs and needed readjustments,” Dennison said. “We know people eagerly anticipated the opening of the parks and trail, and we just ask for patience as any issues are resolved. “