HAENA, Kauai — If you think about what kind of tourist soundtrack might play on sightseeing vans plying the rural landscape of Kauai, a message like this is probably not what you would expect to hear as you approach Haena State Park:
“Kee is the last valley in the district of Halelea, and is one of the most culturally significant places on Kauai. This area is still used by hula practitioners who once had sole use of this area in ancient times. The Kee area was once the Juilliard of Hawaii and was famed as the ‘go-to’ place for hula training. Now, halau (hula troupes) only access it for the most important rituals.
“We therefore ask that if you see practitioners that you give them space and do not enter into the wahi kapu, restricted ceremonial areas.”
But a trio of respected young Native Hawaiians on Kauai has developed just such an audio tour guide that will soon start playing on the shuttle vans that transfer tourists to Kee. It was the inspiration of Joel Guy, a Hanalei resident and business person who started the nonprofit that runs the shuttle, which has routes to Kee Beach from as far as Princeville and Hanalei.
So far, said Guy, about 65,000 visitors have used the shuttle, with hundreds more added every week.
“We didn’t anticipate the opportunity to convey such a great message,” Guy said. “So when you have that responsibility, it’s important that the message be clear. We are right there on the front lines with tens of thousands of people. We realized the shuttle is an amazing kind of choke point. You funnel them through the system and you have them captive for a half hour. Let’s make sure they get good intel.”
Two of the three young people who researched, wrote and recorded the audio track are scholars at the University of Hawaii — one in hula and law and the other in natural resources and environmental management. The third is working on her doctoral dissertation in education at the University of California at Los Angeles.
It is not your average tourist pitch. Instead, it takes note of a series of points on the highway and describes each within the context of Kauai history and culture, all supported by careful scholarly research. It’s aided by GPS technology, which will enable the description of any of the specific points on the route to begin playing exactly when the shuttle van approaches it.
The track gives visitors gentle guidance on the cultural rules of the road on Kauai, describing the history and roles of each place on the shuttle route, but also offering advice on how they should comport themselves to best show respect for the surroundings.
The shuttle was born of necessity when the state Department of Land and Natural Resources reopened Haena State Park in July 2019 after a protracted closure brought about by the disastrous floods of April 2018. The situation produced a park makeover that has cut the number of visitors who can enter daily from the 2,000 who used to crowd it to 900 now. The exploding visitor counts had made navigating the narrow highway to the park and its over-extended natural facilities next to impossible.
The revitalization was actually facilitated by the closure of Kuhio Highway for more than a year after the floods. The situation created an opportunity for DLNR to implement a palate of changes in the park all at once, with the condition of the highway making it comparatively easy for visitors to see how taking a shuttle made sense.
The changes included stricter parking regulations that now require visitors to have a parking reservation and limit the number of vehicles that can travel the highway. The shuttle now serves as the main public transport medium.
Guy said there had been no shortage of interest in advertising on the shuttles.
“Everybody comes in and says ‘we want to advertise cheeseburgers,’ so we’ve always been kind of wrestling with what kind of message,” Guy said. “We just felt the cultural aspect was going to be the most important.”
Guy said he considered devising a script that shuttle drivers would deliver live, but decided against it because he thought consistency of message would suffer.
“It was a no-brainer to get people from the area to create that message,” he said. “We needed to find the best people who are culturally aware.”
The audio track will also include a brief segment, recorded separately, on ocean safety, underscoring the importance of swimming at lifeguard-staffed beaches and avoiding a wide array of natural hazards.
To take the project to reality, Guy turned to Kapua Chandler, the UCLA doctoral candidate and a member of one of the most long established Hawaiian families on Kauai; Devin Kamealoha Forrest, a respected hula practitioner and UH law student who has a master’s in Hawaiian language and literature; and Mehana Vaughan, who got her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her doctorate from Stanford University. She is an assistant professor in the UH natural resources and environmental affairs department and works in UH Manoa’s Sea Grant program.
“Oftentimes, when people are telling the narrative of Kauai — our home and our place — everything is catered to the visitor,” said Chandler. “This is a great opportunity to share all kinds of aspects of our place with our visitors. It was really important to have something written that is going to be heard by so many people. It’s a platform for the community to tell visitors, ‘This is what we want you to know.’”
It fell to Forrest to do most of the historical and cultural research that provides the close detail in the shuttle script. Much of the information came from research he had already done for other projects.
“The impacts of tourism have increased substantially in Hawaii over the past few decades, not only because of increased visitor arrivals, but because of the way people now visit.” — Mehana Vaughan
He is a kumu hula — the equivalent in the hula world, he said, of a doctoral degree.
“The shuttle people wanted something to play over the speaker,” he said. “This is mostly to educate people about places. My main reason was to make sure that people knew about the sacred places so they wouldn’t go there. You should go down the marked trail. Don’t go and make your own path. Sometimes there is something there that isn’t for everybody.”
For Vaughan, the project was an ideal way to counter the cultural degradation caused by the growing Hawaii tourist industry.
“The impacts of tourism have increased substantially in Hawaii over the past few decades, not only because of increased visitor arrivals, but because of the way people now visit,” she said.
“Where they were once hosted and toured by longtime community members who worked at hotels where everyone would stay, they now venture out on their own guided only by smartphones and geotagging of other tourists,” Vaughan said. “They stay in Airbnbs and vacation rentals owned by out-of-state owners who are not generally present on property and (tourists) are provided no information on respectful or safe visiting.”
After the disastrous 2018 floods, Vaughan said, local people realized “the vital importance of the community finding ways to be hosts again despite this new economic model that is so damaging to our place, if only to ensure that visitors can be safe.”
That’s why, to her, an audio recording played on visitor shuttles — which might otherwise seem mundane— is so important. The project, she said, is “an opportunity to welcome and educate people and help them see below the surface of the history and value of our place, as well as how it’s changing, and they can contribute to positive, rather than damaging, changes.”
For people who climb onto the shuttles, this is the first thing they will hear: “Kauai, fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands, is the oldest geologically but the youngest according to Hawaiian cosmology. Kauai is the child of Papa, earth mother, and Wakea, sky father. Papa and Wakea are also the ancestors of the Hawaiian people, or kanaka oiwi, whose ancestors resided in these islands prior to western contact in 1778.
“Hawaiians migrated to these islands from other parts of Polynesia on voyaging canoes navigating by the stars, winds and ocean currents. Hawaiians continue to live and practice Hawaiian culture across Hawaii today despite ongoing challenges of colonization.”
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