MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Whether construction begins on the Thirty Meter Telescope or continues to get blocked by the ongoing protests, tour companies that have been bringing visitors up to the summit for decades will lose money with every road closure.

Mauna Kea is a driver of interisland, mainland and international tourism, a unique attraction that also draws visitors to nearby Hilo. Eight companies have permits to bring two 14-person vans up the mountain each day for sunrise and sunset tours. Visitors generally pay more than $200 each for the chance to gaze at the night sky.

But companies cancelled their tours this week when the state shut down Mauna Kea Access Road to facilitate the beginning of TMT construction. The public is no longer allowed past the cattle guard on Mauna Kea Access Road.

More than 600 people were assembled at the base of the mountain Thursday, where anti-TMT activists are camping. Thirty-four were arrested Wednesday, but the state has not removed others who continue to block the road.

TMT Saddle Road Mauna Kea Access Road, Maui Police Dept in riot gear wait for the next shift replacing officers along the access road. July 17. 2019
Maui police officers in riot gear wait on the intersection of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Access Road Wednesday. The latter road is closed to facilitate TMT construction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Even if the state manages to quell the protests and the TMT project proceeds, there will be the construction vehicle traffic to deal with. The observatory is expected to take 10 years to build.

“For us it’s a disaster either way,” said David Arnott, who owns Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Adventures. “During the course of the protectors protecting and the attempt by the state to enforce the right for the construction to begin, it’s completely shutting down Mauna Kea.”

This week’s road closure forced him to get creative. He took one tour group around the mountain, passing the activists’ camp, instead of up to the summit, and took another group to Puna instead.

The inconvenience comes after a tumultuous time on the Big Island last year, when volcanic eruptions also forced Arnott’s company to change up its tour offerings.

Demonstrators found out there would be no arrests today even though the kupuna protestors continued to block Mauna Kea Access Road. July 16, 2019
Protesters and authorities both have checkpoints on Mauna Kea Access Road. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

But Arnott says he’s not fazed. He’s seen other telescope protests over the decades, not to mention weather closures on the sometimes snowcapped mountain. In a way, he is fortunate. His business also includes cruise ship tours and a small hotel that keep his company afloat.

Super Vacation Hawaii is in a similar situation, says general manager Henry Wang.

“There’s nothing we can do, it’s a government thing,” he said, adding that his company also takes visitors to Mauna Kea National Park and Kalapana. “We still do other tours so it should be OK.”

Other companies, like Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, are more worried. The company has been around since 1983 and exclusively offers Mauna Kea tours.

General manager Mike Sessions said nine of his company’s 12 employees are already seeking unemployment benefits. If road closures last more than a month, it could be out of business, he said.

Even when the road reopens, there’s no recouping lost revenue. Companies are not allowed to offer extra tours to make up for those they must cancel.

Sessions hopes state officials who are closing Mauna Kea Access Road to help the TMT also consider helping other private businesses like his, who have a track record of contributing to the Big Island’s economy.

“There’s just so many days we can go,” he said.

Civil Beat reporter Yoohyun Jung contributed reporting to this story.

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