On Monday, the lone road to the farthest reaches of Kauai’s North Shore reopened to the public for the first time since a disastrous flood reduced the average daily visitor count at Haena’s celebrated end-of-the-road lagoon from 3,000 to virtually none.
Tourism in this Instagram-perfect oasis of neon-blue water and green jungle came to a halt in April 2018 when a record-setting storm dumped 49.7 inches of rain in 24 hours.
The deluge damaged hundreds of homes, unleashed dozens of landslides, destroyed the park’s infrastructure and ravaged the road that is this region’s lifeline. The carnage prompted the hardest hit communities of Haena and Wainiha to bar entry to all but construction workers and those who live in the neighborhoods for 14 months.
During the public road closure, residents saw things that they hadn’t seen since the 1950s: empty beaches and roads, undisturbed waters teeming with fish and a resurgence of community spirit. Kids started riding bikes in the road. Families reclaimed favorite tracks of sand and sea that had been overtaken by throngs of tourists.
A popular sentiment among born-and-raised locals is that the flood was a divine declaration from Mother Nature that she had had enough.
“There are people who have been born and raised there and all they know is crowds of people,” said Curt Cottrell, the administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks. “And then … they looked up and saw their community as it once was 70 years ago. Even the fish started looking up and recognizing that there was room now for them to come back and swim.”
Now the communities of Wainiha and Haena are emerging from isolation with new regulations geared toward mitigating the crush of tourism at the area’s most popular attraction. A redesigned Haena State Park boasts experimental crowd control features — including a 900-person daily visitor cap and increased law enforcement — and has become a case study in how to stave off over-tourism, not only for the benefit of local residents and the delicate natural resources but for the enjoyment of the tourists themselves.
“I have stacks of emails and letters from people that come and they are extremely disappointed with the quality of our management because they come to a first-world country and they see third-world country conditions of our comfort stations and our parking lots,” Cottrell said.
The old Haena State Park, Cottrell said, was designed for the level of patronage the park received in 1970, back when the whole state attracted 1.7 million annual visitors. Amplified by social media, a proliferation of vacation rentals and the $79 million budget of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state now lures in more tourists than ever. More than 10 million are expected this year.
With so many Hawaii-bound sightseers and adventure-seekers, state parks officials are exploring new ways to address problems, including environmental degradation and the looming threat that Hawaii could someday lose its reputation as a premiere visitor destination if its most iconic vistas and experiences are overrun.
“The National Park Service does this with great success,” Cottrell said. “Of course, the National Park Service has a budget from God.”
If successful, the new parking and entry systems at Haena State Park could become a statewide model for addressing over-tourism at other over-capacity attractions, such as Diamond Head State Monument and Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline on Oahu, Waianapanapa State Park on Maui and Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park on the Big Island.
“Hawaii has been notorious for just bowing down to the tourism giant and, ‘E komo mai,’ just giving our stuff away,” Cottrell said. “There needs to be a paradigm shift.”
Days before the flood ruined the infrastructure at Haena State Park, Cottrell said, the state parks division had just obtained long-sought approval for a new master plan drafted over the course of two decades in collaboration with local residents and stakeholders.
The gist of the plan was this: Reduce the number of park visitors on a daily basis by implementing controlled parking and entry systems to address the environmental, cultural and community fallout inflicted by decades of overuse.
Then the flood came, followed by the sudden availability of federal emergency disaster relief funds. The money, along with allocations from the Legislature, opened the door for parks officials to almost immediately implement a $4.8 million park renovation plan that otherwise appeared destined to sit on a shelf for years, Cottrell said.
“It was literally a perfect storm of opportunity for us,” he said. “The Chinese symbol for crisis and the Chinese symbol for opportunity really apply here.”
Out-of-state visitors to Haena State Park are now subject to fees of $5 for parking and $1 for entry, and they must make advanced reservations. The park had historically been free, parking was first-come, first-served, and there was a shortage of parking enforcement, all of which impacted nearby neighborhoods.
Hawaii residents qualify for free parking and entry and do not need advanced reservations, although their entry is not guaranteed if the park is above capacity when they arrive.
The 900-person daily visitor cap is a moving target, according to Cottrell, and there will be some flexibility to help accommodate Hawaii residents who wish to visit the park without advanced planning.
“We’re not going to stop at 902, for example, if a local family comes up,” Cottrell said.
The new 100-stall parking lot has a porous surface, which Cottrell said could prove to be a maintenance nightmare but it answers the community’s distaste for concrete or asphalt. He said he wanted to build a 200-stall lot, but compromised with community members who wanted fewer stalls.
“We are managing three types of floods — floods of people, floods of water and increasing sea level rise.” — Curt Cottrell, DLNR
Approximately 25 of the park’s 100 parking spaces will be reserved for Hawaii residents.
The parking reservation website went live Friday and within 24 hours, all 75 available parking stall reservations were sold out, according to DLNR.
The state Department of Transportation does not have parking violation enforcement powers. But there is a new “no parking” signage installed between Haena Place and the end of the road that was paid for out of the DOT’s maintenance funds.
A soon-to-launch North Shore Shuttle is expected to help relieve traffic congestion by offering park-goers public transit access to Haena State Park for $11 round-trip.
Other park features include a new pedestrian boardwalk extending from the parking lot to the beach. There is a giant flood-control system that aims to protect the parking lot from another deluge of rain. Parks officials also worked with the DOT to peel back the asphalt road where it meets the beach by about 40 meters as a measure to address climate change by giving the beach sand room to shift over time.
“We are managing three types of floods — floods of people, floods of water and increasing sea level rise,” Cottrell said.
State officials have also secured funding for four park rangers. One will be stationed at Haena State Park providing visitors with safety information and conducting light site maintenance.
The other three will be stationed in Kalalau Valley, a wilderness camping destination and the end-point of the grueling 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which has a trailhead adjacent to Haena State Park’s Kee Beach.
In Kalalau, Cottrell said there will be two rangers camping in the valley at all times. Their mission will be to enforce camping permit compliance, provide permitted campers with safety information and administer first aid.
“The game changer I’m looking for is once word gets out on social media that we have staff in Kalalau with satellite phones, and hopefully jet skis, who can do trail repair and check permits, it will get out that you can’t go to Kalalau if you don’t have a permit,” Cottrell said. “Back in the day we’d have 200 people there at night and about 150 of them would not have permits.”
Cottrell said he estimates all four rangers will be on the job by August. They will not have law enforcement authority.
Cottrell acknowledges that some people will try to game the new system and find ways around the rules. Part of his charge now that the park has reopened is to monitor threats to the new parking reservation system and up-and-coming shuttle, such as the use of jet skis, boats or ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft to bypass crowd control implements.
He also knows that the new regulations might merely serve to kick the problem down the road. The thousands of visitors shut out daily by Haena’s new crowd controls will inevitably find new places to congregate, increasing the swarms of travelers at beaches where visitor management is less intensive or nonexistent.
“If you squeeze here, it will pop out in other places and to the detriment of those places,” Cottrell said. “It’s like what we do with homeless people. We aren’t housing them, we’re just moving them around.”
There have already been setbacks, Cottrell said.
When the park reopened Monday, drivers of five vehicles had already cheated the system by entering the parking lot during the night and securing parking spaces. No overnight parking is permitted in the new lot — not even for overnight Kalalau Trail hikers.
To prevent this from happening again, Cottrell said parks officials might implement parking spikes. This common traffic control solution would be set up to allow vehicles to exit the park in the evening — but the tires of vehicles attempting to enter the park after-hours would get sliced by the spikes.
On Tuesday morning, a handful of local residents stood in the middle of the newly reopened stretch of Kuhio Highway near the Waioli Bridge and blocked cars driven by tourists from traveling past Hanalei into the neighborhoods that had previously been closed off to nonresidents.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the protesters formed a human chain and turned away about 50 tourists just after 5 a.m.
A Kauai County spokesperson said about five protesters moved to the side of the road and continued their demonstration peacefully after police officers arrived. No arrests were made.