Tents of varying shapes and sizes were scattered across the Malaekahana State Recreation Area on a recent Sunday morning. One served as a pantry with canned goods, grains and bread, while others housed large tables with rice cookers, crockpots and toasters.
Some mini, two-person tents sat tucked away with easy access to Malaekahana beach.
Recreational camping is back to normal capacity after months of closures and restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but local residents have overtaken tourists in reserving spots on most state beaches.
At her home in Mililani, minutes before midnight, Shanel Nishimura stays up with her family and hops on FaceTime with her camping friends. They all open multiple devices to the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ online reservation hub and have their autosaved credit card information ready to go.
“It’s like this lottery,” she said. “Every time it’s like a mad rush getting the sites.”
To allow more flexibility and decrease the number of Covid-related cancellations, the Department of Land and Natural Resources changed the reservation system in June 2020 to book no more than 30 days in advance instead of one year.
The DLNR also raised all parking and entrance fees for out-of-state visitors to Hawaii’s state parks. It waived those fees for residents but implemented “modest increases” to camping and lodging fees for all users.
The fee increases brought an unexpected influx of cash, and the DLNR State Parks Division is on track to triple its previous average annual revenue of $5 million.
“With the new fees recently implemented at nine parks, that annual revenue may approach $15 million if current patronage numbers are sustained,” the state parks assistant administrator Alan Carpenter said.
According to Carpenter, the 30-day reservation system heavily favors locals and nearly all campsites have been predominantly, if not completely, booked by local families except for the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park on Kauai and Waianapanapa State Park on Maui, which have long been popular with tourists.
“If we’re allowed to spend the revenue that we collect in our parks to better manage them and grow our staff, we really have a potential to finally kind of reach that place where we need to be as a parks management agency,” Carpenter said.
The situation looked dramatically different in March 2020 when all state parks on Oahu and Kauai, and most on Hawaii island, Maui and Molokai, closed. The decisions were “100% driven by what the county mayors decided,” Carpenter said.
In the early pandemic months, five beach parks in Kauai County were identified as safe areas for homeless individuals to shelter in place, but that provision ended in March as the state moved to reopen recreational camping.
Carpenter recalled the Kauai floods in 2018 that provided both a painful economic lesson and a pandemic prelude.
“For Napali alone, we lost $500,000 in combined lost revenue and refunds issued, due to the 365-day advance reservation window and a year-long park closure,” he said.
By June 2020, most parks across the islands were opening their gates again with limited capacity usage; however throughout the year, the rules kept fluctuating as the coronavirus affected counties differently.
Like nesting turtles that returned to the beach in the early months of the pandemic, some local families took advantage of capacity limitations with every other campsite blocked off and a five-person cap for each site instead of 10.
Nishimura misses those days.
“Camping has been our retreat, but it has gotten much busier,” she said, recalling several problems when she and her family went to Malaekahana State Recreation Area on Memorial Day.
Nishimura said she had double-booked a camping space with another family that weekend, and couldn’t contact DLNR, and one night, she said a group of young campers blasted inappropriate music well past midnight and again, had no one to contact.
“I don’t know what we were thinking,” Nishimura laughed, looking back at their camping trip on Memorial Day weekend. “It was like tent city. It didn’t feel relaxing anymore.”
Despite the antics of their holiday weekend neighbors, Nishimura said a silver lining from the pandemic has been more quality time outdoors with her family and friends.
“We’re always looking to travel and get out, but we were able to discover some new beaches and new places that we’ve never been to before,” she said.
As tourism to the islands picks up again, Carpenter said he would not support the notion that recreational camping could serve as an affordable option for visitors.
According to preliminary visitor statistics jointly released by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, more than 520,000 visitors arrived in June from the U.S. West — the Pacific and Mountain regions — well above the 10,000 visitors in June 2020, and a 15% increase from 2019. Visitors from Japan are still down 98% from 2019.
With rental cars selling out months in advance and nearly 90% of visitors from the mainland staying in hotels, condominiums, rental homes and timeshares, campgrounds are largely left to locals.
However, on Kauai, a 1980 Westfalia Volkswagen van gives visitors from the mainland a completely different camping adventure for $145 a night. Three years ago, Maciah Bilodeau and his wife bought and built out their van to travel around the island with their son, quickly realizing that it could become a successful business.
After living on Kauai for 29 years, Bilodeau said he believes vacation rental homes were having a negative impact on housing affordability for residents, so a van camping business seemed like a great idea.
“We thought, ‘What if we just did a few vans and sent people out on the road? Then they won’t be in a home,’” he said.
He said renters range from adventure enthusiasts in their twenties to retired couples with decades worth of road trips under their belt — noting that all of his three vans are between 20 and 40 years old.
“I had to become a mechanic,” he said. “These Westies, they’re all old. They’re from 1980 to 1990 or so, and that’s right when issues start happening and you have to deal with electrical and mechanical things.”
Carpenter said only one state park on Maui accommodates camper vans so the others would need to operate like a normal car, meaning the renters would have to park in a stall with a permit and stay in a tent on a campsite.
While there are some privately owned campsites that welcome van campers, Carpenter said he’s seen vans parked across the islands in illegal areas.
Bilodeau said he provides camping information to his renters as well as a tent setup in the vans.
“That would reflect badly on me if my vans always parked somewhere they’re not supposed to be,” he said.
Carpenter acknowledged that enforcing rules at campsites is a challenge as park management staff relies on partnerships with volunteers at local nonprofits to make sure everybody’s following the law.
He said he’d like to use some of the increased revenues to change that, including providing more on-the-ground assistance to improve security and safety.
“We’re moving in the right direction, enforcement-wise, but we’re not nearly there,” Carpenter said. “We are very much understaffed for our mandate, especially in the face of increasing tourism.”
While there is a DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, Dan Dennison, DLNR’s senior communications manager, said none of the 100 officers throughout the state are specifically assigned to state parks.
The enforcement division is “responsible for state laws and administrative rules related to natural and cultural resources conservation for more than 700 miles of shoreline and several million acres of land,” Dennison said.
According to state budgets, DOCARE will receive $3 million more in general funds and more than $2 million in Covid-19 relief funds for the next fiscal year, while the State Parks Division budget remains the same.
While Carpenter has big dreams for the future, he’s currently focused on hiring more people.
“How can we expect visitors to behave if we don’t tell them how to behave, right?” he said. “I think most people want to abide by the rules and want to protect the resources, but they need someone to help them do that.”
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