The fragile peace over the reopening of Kuhio Highway and better management of tourism was quickly shattered Tuesday by protesters who formed a human chain to temporarily block the gateway to Ha‘ena State Park and other popular community natural resources and popular attractions on the Garden Isle.
About 50 tourists were turned away just after 5 a.m. even as construction workers and residents were allowed through. Kauai police arrived before 7 a.m. and forced the 20 or so protesters to open the road to everyone. Later in the day, protesters still were peaceably gathered along the highway by Waioli Bridge hoping to dissuade visitors from entering the community.
Closed for more than a year by damage from devastating flooding, the state’s reopening of Kuhio Highway on Monday restored access to some of the Garden Isle’s most popular tourist attractions under new tourism management guidelines. A new Ha‘ena State Park Master Plan limits visitation to 900 people a day from an estimated 3,000 daily before the road closed in April 2018; there are also new parking restrictions, and other measures meant to control the anticipated heavy influx have been put into place.
Even so, complaints the very day of the opening gave rise to Tuesday’s early-morning protest. Some residents who had gotten used to a nearly tourism-free existence were irked by speeding cars, tourists hogging one-lane bridges and parking illegally, and by seeing visitors walking on reefs at popular North Shore attractions, including the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, Ha‘ena State Park, Ke‘e Beach, Kalalau Trail, Haena Beach Park and Limahuli Garden & Preserve.
>> More photos for Kuhio Highway reopens; protests begin
Kaiulani Mahuka, a protester who was raised on Kauai’s north shore, said the hui wants to send a message to the state and tourists that Kauai’s far north region still isn’t ready for visitors.
“We plan to continue with our right to protest,” Mahuka said. “We just finished making more signs. We’re handing out information and educating visitors. We’re informing them about the lack of adequate bathrooms or parking and suggesting that maybe their next vacation would be a better time to visit when there’s not such a raw wound. Many people here still haven’t recovered from last year’s flooding.”
As the number of visitors to every Hawaii island continues to climb — taxing local resources and overburdening natural resources — residents and community leaders are asking how much tourism is too much and seeking ways to strike a balance in the industry that drives the state’s economy.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said in a statement Tuesday, “We recognized early on that the first days of vehicle and parking control, paid park entrance for visitors, the upcoming implementation of a shuttle system, along with newly designed park features, would not perhaps go as smoothly as we’d like or as anticipated.”
Dennison said DLNR estimates that for every car that arrived Monday at Ha‘ena State Park with a valid permit, another four or five cars were turned away. DLNR also realizes that illegal parking was a problem Monday, he said.
As a result, four officers from DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement and four officers from the Kauai Police Department were directed Tuesday to begin aggressively enforcing all no-parking zone rules on Kuhio Highway leading into the park. Illegal parking will result in a $200 fine.
“It is hoped that consistent enforcement over the next few weeks will spread the message that parking is limited and you need to plan ahead to secure a spot in the Ha‘ena State Park lot or use the shuttle to get to the park,” Dennison said.
There’s also an expectation that 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 Ha‘ena experience.
State and county officials met Tuesday with protesters, who agreed to let traffic resume.
However, Mahuka said protesters might block the highway in the future if promises aren’t kept to control traffic, enforce parking fines, remove illegally parked cars and implement policies that reduce visitor impacts.
“They’ve turned our island into a cheap whore. They reopened for the tourists yesterday. People came speeding in. There wasn’t anyone to direct traffic. People were going by the hundreds to Lumahai Beach — it’s not safe, there’s no lifeguard. People were walking all over the reef, and they left their rubbish everywhere,” Mahuka said.
Although the reopening has prompted unrest, many in the region had clamored for the state to quickly reopen the roadway and were disappointed by delays. The closure significantly dampened business for Na Pali Kayak, a Hanalei-based business that has a state permit to take tourists on kayak trips in Ha‘ena State Park. Still, the company turned around Tuesday when it encountered protesters.
“When we encountered them, we made the call not to upset the local community. It’s a tightknit community and it’s our home, too,” said Na Pali Kayak co-owner Josh Comstock. “Some tourists were really upset, but we were able to make others understand.”
Comstock said he hopes to find support from “the aunties” when Na Pali Kayak attempts passage again today.
“It’s a work in progress. It’s been a long road, and we understand that there’s a long road ahead,” he said.
The combined population of Kauai’s isolated north shore communities is estimated as less than 1,000. The number of tourists visiting Ha‘ena State Park before the road closed was an estimated 730,000 or more annually.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state’s tourism agency, said it supports mitigating the impacts on Kauai.
“Hawaii Tourism provided the requested support to the local committee responsible for planning the reopening of the state park. This is a very challenging and emotional process. We will continue to work with the committee to support its efforts to protect our natural resources, while sharing the beauty of the area and supporting the quality of life of the residents,” said Chris Tatum, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO.
Ka‘imi Hermosura- Konohiki, who lives in Halelea, said she and fellow protesters want to stop Kauai’s north shore region from turing into “another Waikiki.”
“They would rather accommodate tourists than listen to the residents’ concerns,” Hermosura-Konohiki said. “We want them to close the community to tourists until the roadwork is done and plans are coordinated to receive them.”
Hermosura-Konohiki said residents, many still recovering from flooding, are upset that so far it seems as if most of the recovery resources have gone into readying the district to receive tourists.