Every day Diep Vo-Le would swim for an hour at Hanauma Bay before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the 70-year-old Hawaii Kai resident is lucky to step foot on the premiere snorkeling site at least twice a week.
Since the county park launched its online reservation system, it’s a race for both locals and tourists to snag a spot at the nature preserve.
Visitors must book two days prior to their preferred date, starting at 7 a.m. When the clock strikes 7 on a typical morning, the website reveals 1,050 spots available in 35 time slots 10 minutes apart. Within two to four minutes, all reservations are filled.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” Vo-Le said after finishing a recent morning swim in the bay. “After five minutes, everything is gone. For old people, if you don’t know how to type fast, or if you make a typo, you cannot get in.”
The reservation system launched in April, more than four months after the park reopened to the public after being closed following the onset of the pandemic last year. Before that, people would line up for hours to secure a spot.
But the latest effort at crowd control has had mixed results as demand to visit the unique marine ecosystem, which is known for its vast variety of colorful fish and coral, skyrocketed with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and the return of tourists to the island.
“Online reservations are a new way of waiting in line for Black Friday or waiting at Blaisdell,” said Nathan Serota, spokesman for the Department of Parks and Recreation. “People will camp out at Best Buy a day in advance.”
When the park reopened in early December, officials imposed a daily limit of 720 people and stopped allowing people to enter at 2 p.m., along with other safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But the full capacity is 1,400 and the average daily number of visitors was 903 in May, the first full month that the reservation system was in place.
Seventy-five percent of those were from out of state while the rest were local residents or active duty service members and their dependents, who also get free entry.
In comparison, the park had 64,459 visitors in May 2019, with a daily average of 2,479, 80% of whom were tourists, according to Honolulu Parks Director Laura Thielen.
Revenues also have begun flowing again. Entry is free for residents and active duty military personnel, who pay only $1 for parking, but nonresidents must pay $12 for admission and $3 for parking.
When the park reopened in December, Hanauma Bay’s revenues were $114,931. It peaked at $211,092 in April.
Recently, the Honolulu City Council passed a bill that would double nonresident entry fees to $25. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blagiardi has until Monday to sign or veto the bill.
On Wednesday morning, more than 50 people – some without a reservation – lined up outside the entrance as early as 5 a.m., even though the park doesn’t open up until 6:45 a.m.
The nearly 230 parking spots were full of cars. Some people parked at a nearby shopping center, then walked about a quarter of a mile along the highway to the preserve’s entrance.
Staff members checked tickets, while parents tried to control children running around with their floaties.
Jason Mustard and his family, who were visiting from California, tried to book a reservation for two days in a row with no luck.
Instead they arrived at 9 a.m. hoping to get in. Forty-five minutes later, Mustard and his 16-year-old-son, Gavin, were still waiting outside, although his wife and two other children were able to enter.
“I’m sure not everyone wants to get up before 7 a.m. to compete (for a reservation),” Mustard said. “They can get in somehow.”
Other county and state parks have also implemented online reservation systems that proved competitive. Waianapanapa State Park on Maui and Haena State Park on Kauai are both nearly booked for the next two months.
Despite the challenges, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Hawaii Tourism Authority have been discussing the possibility of launching a statewide online reservation system for popular sites.
Kalani Kaʻanaʻana, director of Hawaiian Cultural Affairs and Natural Resources at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the idea of a statewide system has been “off-and-on for three years” and gained more traction during the pandemic.
The ultimate goal is to preserve the parks, mitigate environmental impacts, educate visitors and generate revenues for state parks, he said, adding that the intention isn’t to overstep what the county parks already put in place.
“This is just to add another layer to make it easier for locals and tourists to improve user experience,” Kaʻanaʻana said. “Having a conversation about the system, we hope it generates ideas about how to better manage tourism, what technology’s role in it is, so that we can improve the quality of life for Hawaii residents.”
Hanauma Bay, which was formed within a volcanic cone, was declared a protected marine life conservation area in 1967 but still suffered from decades of overuse as visitors flocked to the curved beach. At that time, there was no official management plan for preserving the bay except to limit extractions like seashells, coral and fish, according to Alan Hong, who managed the nature preserve for 20 years.
The toll was evident during the pandemic, when researchers discovered fish coming out of hiding and other signs of recovery thanks to the absence of visitors.
Due to booming tourism, the City and County of Honolulu in 1990 aimed to regulate the site’s overcrowding and damage to the coral reefs.
At the request of the parks and recreation department and the city, the University of Hawaii conducted a five-month study on the effects of tourism on the bay and the benefits of placing heavy restrictions on commercial use.
Park personnel explored a lottery system and online reservation system at that time, but the idea was scrapped because of concern that reservations would give large tourist agencies and other commercial entities a competitive edge over independent travelers and residents.
“Reservations should make it equal for everyone,” Hong said.
In 2002, the park created a mandatory nine-minute educational video for visitors to watch before they enter the bay, which remains a requirement.
For now, visitors try to be crafty at booking reservations.
California residents Jeffrey Chiu and his girlfriend, Joan Mendoza, said they kept trying on separate phones. Even so, they were not expecting to book a reservation. But they did.
“It’s like a festival release,” Chiu said. “You refresh the page and hope that you get one.”
Kahala resident Casey Lynn and her sister, who tried for three days to get tickets, were not as successful despite being self-described fast typers.
Instead Lynn showed up on Wednesday with her two children, her husband, and her sister and her two children with hopes of getting in. This is Lynn’s first time back since Hanauma Bay reopened.
“I love Hanauma Bay,” Lynn said. “But with what’s going on with COVID-19 and how things are run, they seem to be unfair not just for the tourists but for locals.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.