A plan to allow the state’s biggest transportation company to shuttle hundreds of tourists a day from Waikiki to Hanauma Bay may be off the table after encountering resistance from community members concerned about protecting the iconic nature preserve in southeast Oahu.

Members of the Friends of Hanauma Bay mobilized this month against the proposal by Roberts Hawaii, which they saw as the most serious threat to commercialize the nature preserve in more than 20 years.

The nonprofit has advocated for the bay’s protection and responsible stewardship for three decades, organizing everything from volunteer beach cleanups to letter-writing campaigns and public outreach. 

“There’s too much uncertainty in the future of this, especially when the city gets their hands on it,” said Bob Kern, the group’s vice president. “People in the city don’t have a clue what goes on there.”

Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve vog sunrise2
Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve is the most popular snorkeling destination in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Despite the opposition, Roberts Hawaii had planned to move forward with its request for a one-year revocable permit from the city until a few days ago.

Ronald Hee, a company official, told Friends of Hanauma Bay President Lisa Bishop on Feb. 23 that Roberts Hawaii was disappointed the nonprofit would not support the proposal after numerous meetings over the past 10 months. But he said in no uncertain terms that the company would still proceed with its request for the permit.

The company backed away from that position this week.

Roberts Hawaii Vice President Lee Collins said in a statement that discussions about transportation plans for the bay have been “exploratory.” 

“We would not move forward with any course of action unless we are confident it would bring positive value to both Hanauma Bay and the greater community,” Collins said.

City spokesman Andrew Pereira said Monday that “the company has withdrawn its request for a one year revocable permit at Hanauma Bay.”

He later clarified, saying the company is not pursuing its effort for a permit. He said he couldn’t provide a date for the withdrawal of the application because the company never submitted one.

Luly Unemori, a spokeswoman for Roberts Hawaii, was similarly unable to say when the company decided to back away from the plan. She said there was never “any formal decision to pursue or not pursue a permit.” 

“The concept was one of multiple ideas raised during the community conversations, but as the discussions were exploratory, it was not pursued beyond that,” Unemori said.

Visitors form a quick moving line at the entrance Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve.
Visitors wait in line to enter Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tour buses are allowed to take visitors to the bay under the current management plan, but only to sightsee for 15 minutes at a time.

The city prohibits commercial tour operators from dropping off passengers at the bay to go to the beach, but a loophole allowing taxis — even mini-vans operating as taxis — has been exploited for years.

Roberts Hawaii officials said they could help the city halt the taxi loophole if given a one-year revocable permit for a new Hanauma Bay Transportation Management concession, according to a company proposal dated Feb. 17.

Roberts Hawaii proposed being the official Waikiki shuttle service, bringing 50 to 55 people to the bay every 30 minutes, with drop-offs from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The proposal called for pricing of $15 for a round-trip shuttle, $10 one-way or $22.50 for a round-trip shuttle and an admission ticket.  

The city charges non-residents $7.50 to enter the bay. Entry is free for Hawaii residents with a valid ID.

With 12 daily drop-offs of 50 passengers, the company would stand to make $6,000 to $9,000 a day depending on whether customers bought one-way or round-trip tickets. Operating six days a week, since the bay is closed Tuesdays, that could mean roughly $3 million a year.

Collins said some of the concepts that have been discussed include a well-managed transportation system to reduce illegal and excessive traffic; expanded public education through a conservation video, docent guide and school partnerships; and collection of visitor and park data to help guide future park management efforts.

Buses and limousines parked at Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve.
Buses and limousines are parked at Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Friends of Hanauma Bay leaders were concerned about the proposal’s effects on safety and resource degradation, and said it could discourage local residents from going to the bay.

The state generally has jurisdiction over the marine resources at Hanauma Bay, and the city is responsible for the land resources.

The bay now receives just over 1 million visitors annually, less than a third of the amount visiting in the late 1980s, before the state’s current management plan was established.

It’s the most popular snorkeling destination in the state.

More visitors drown at Hanauma Bay than anywhere else in Hawaii, and lifeguards rescue hundreds of people each year who get into trouble, according to state and county statistics.

Tourists’ lack of experience in the ocean, often coupled with pre-existing health conditions, contribute to the drownings and near-drownings, according to state and county officials interviewed by Civil Beat for a multi-part series in January.

In its February proposal, Roberts Hawaii identified “injuries and fatalities of visitors” as a threat, along with the risk of litigation and deterioration of gains made in hard-earned reef restoration.

Lifeguards rescued 557 beachgoers at Hanauma Bay in 2014.
Lifeguards rescued 557 beachgoers at Hanauma Bay in 2014. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The company said it did not expect the proposed service to increase the number of visitors to the bay. 

“Our intentions are to move existing visitors from rental cars, public busing and illegal commercial transportation companies into the Official Hanauma Bay Shuttle Service,” the proposal said.

Roberts Hawaii suggested changing public bus routes to make it harder for visitors to take a bus for $2.50 from Waikiki to the bay, and said the city could authorize the company’s staff to help enforce existing rules, including discouraging tour operators who are skirting the law.

The company said in its proposal that city rules “need to be enforced with aloha but firmly as abuse appears to be rampant.”

The company also proposed a “skip the line” plan for visitors who took the shuttle service. The city requires everyone who enters the bay to watch an orientation video beforehand; Roberts Hawaii said it would show a safety video on the bus and let visitors go straight to the bay.

Friends of Hanauma Bay members were concerned that local residents waiting in line to enter would see a system that favored tourists by letting them go directly to the beach.

The city’s stated goal in its 1990 management plan is to optimize the use of Hanauma Bay as an important recreational resource for the people of Oahu “while preserving and enhancing the natural qualities and opportunities unique to Hanauma Bay and its environs.” 

Lifeguard Josh Guerra helps a visitor who cut his foot at Hanauma Bay.
Lifeguard Josh Guerra helps a visitor who cut his foot at Hanauma Bay. Marina Riker/Civil Beat

When it comes to environmental concerns about the bay, Peter Rappa of the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant Extension Service wrote in a paper before his death in 2011 that in the late 1980s there were 10,000 people visiting the park daily — more than three times as many as now.

“Sewage from the bathrooms regularly spilled into the bay as the cesspool systems were overburdened,” he said.

The limits that the city put in place under the management plan helped turn the tide, Rappa said, particularly by shifting the focus from finding ways to accommodate more visitors to protecting the natural resources.

Bishop, the president of Friends of Hanauma Bay, said the group could not support Roberts Hawaii’s proposal because it would compromise the stewardship of the bay.

“It will reopen the doors to massive commercialization,” she said.

Visitors struggle to take off their snorkeling gear at Hanauma Bay.
Visitors take off their fins at Hanauma Bay. Marina Riker/Civil Beat

Roberts Hawaii officials have donated thousands of dollars to politicians over the years.

Most recently, Robert Iwamoto Jr., whose father founded the company in 1941 on Kauai, donated $4,000 to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s campaign for re-election this fall. Another company executive, Chad Iwamoto, donated $3,500.

Caldwell has not taken a position on the possibility of having a vendor shuttle visitors to and from Hanauma Bay, according to Pereira.

Hee told Friends of Hanauma Bay last month that it was a Roberts Hawaii initiative, not something the mayor directed the company to do.

Roberts Hawaii, based in Honolulu, offers tours statewide, including Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Haleakala on Maui, Waimea Canyon on Kauai and volcanoes on Big Island. The company also has state contracts to provide school bus transportation services.

The company is buying Polynesian Adventure Tours and Luau Kalamaku from Norwegian Cruise Lines, according to a Feb. 23 report in Pacific Business News. In 2013, the publication listed Roberts Hawaii as one of the most influential companies in Hawaii.

Collins, the company’s vice president, said Roberts Hawaii is “keenly aware of community concerns about protecting Hanauma Bay” while at the same time working to ensure the public can safely visit and enjoy the park.

“Our conversations with various groups — including educational and community organizations and the city and county — arose from the idea that we might be able to contribute to protecting the bay and improving the park visitor’s experience,” he said.

Read the Roberts Hawaii proposal below.

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