Kauai’s principal airport is in dire need of a facelift, but a new modernization plan by state officials would add three gates and expand rental car capacity, drawing ire from residents of an island trying to rein in staggering tourism growth.

kauai locator badgePressure for more runway space at Lihue Airport hinges on the fact that the airport’s three-decades-old master plan is the oldest in the state and does not take into consideration the tremendous growth in annual visitor arrivals over those years.

In April, Kauai visitor arrivals numbered 115,578, the highest number of April arrivals in at least the last 15 years, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Last year there were 813,347 visitor arrivals to the Garden Isle, down from nearly 1.4 million in the pre-pandemic era of 2019.

Few would argue there isn’t a need to improve the condition of an aging airport that cannot keep up with current, no less future, demand. 

The main point of contention, however, is a data point at the crux of the Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division’s draft master plan for Lihue Airport that organizes the planned renovation around a future demand forecast of 4.5 million annual departing and arriving passengers.

The Lihue Airport draft master plan proposes a new contiguous rental car facility that would increase the airport’s rental car footprint by up to 30 acres. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

At a series of public meetings, airport officials have said that the added gates themselves do not induce demand. Rather, the proposed airport development would meet the demand that’s already there — or expected to come.

Jonny Wichman, vice president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association, said he doesn’t buy that logic.

“To me, it’s one of those things where if you build it, they will come,” he said. “If you increase the airport by six gates, then you’re going to fill those six gates. So where does it stop?”

Kauai Chamber of Commerce President Mark Periello said that he would like to see state transportation officials write an airport master plan that aligns with community concerns with over-tourism that are encapsulated in the island’s destination management action plan.

“The airport is operating, really, in what seems like a vacuum in that they aren’t considering the experience of the person who gets to Kauai after they leave the airport,” Periello said. 

As such, state and county political leaders are calling on state airport officials to reformulate the plans and try again.

“It’s unfortunate that the consultants hired might be tone deaf to the community,” Gov. David Ige said Wednesday at the Kauai Chamber of Commerce’s annual governor’s luncheon, adding that he plans to tell folks at the DOT to do “more listening and less talking” when it comes to developing the Lihue Airport master plan.

The Woes Of Lihue Airport

The long list of Lihue Airport deficiencies includes security bottlenecks, insufficient air conditioning and too-small gate waiting rooms and rental car counters. No one would be wooed by the scant food concessions and retail options. 

There’s a problem with aircraft waiting on the taxiway for an open gate. The taxi and cell phone waiting lots are insufficiently sized. A shortage of public parking stalls has occasionally led travelers to miss their flights. 

As declared in a March 2022 Yelp review, “Some small airports are a joy, this one sucks.”

Hortencia Narayan, left, and Dolores Zambrano, both of the Bay Area, arrived at Lihue Airport last May with no prospects for a rental car to get around the island due to a pandemic-related rental car shortage. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

In some ways, expansion is needed. But increasing the number of airport gates from nine to 12 and expanding rental car capacity clashes with popular opinion that something has to give to rein in the visitor industry’s intrusion on the daily lives of residents fed up with traffic jams, overcrowded beaches and illegal parking.

The plan also fails to take into account a shift in the island’s long-range planning strategy to take on a bigger role in managing tourism at a time when the sheer number of visitors on the island at any given time has been likened to an invasion.

Haena State Park, the most popular tourist attraction in the farthest reaches of Kauai’s rural north shore, was redesigned in 2019 with new 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. 

Launched after the park revamp, the Go Haena Shuttle has reduced traffic along the lone road that winds through rural Wainiha and Haena by about 3,500 cars per month, according to The Hanalei Initiative.

And at the airport, new shuttle services added in 2021 aim to transport visitors to their accommodations while reducing the number of rental cars on the roads.

These and other efforts to address the problems of over-tourism, including environmental degradation and the looming threat that Kauai could someday lose its reputation as a premiere visitor destination if its most iconic vistas and experiences are overrun, are guided by a series of state and county long-range planning documents published in recent years that solidify a shift toward a less-is-more tourism model.

The 2018 Kauai General Plan calls for limiting new resort development and says that “any permitted growth in the visitor industry needs to consider the negative impact it can have on our infrastructure and our communities.” Similarly, the 2021-2023 Kauai Destination Management Action Plan lays out a blueprint toward better visitor management.

Any expansion of the Lihue Airport to accommodate more visitors goes against these plans, Wichman said.

“They’re not taking into account that the frustration level of your visitor is very high today because they’re told to come here and they get here and they want to go to the beach but there’s no parking,” Wichman said. “They want to go to the grocery store and there’s no parking. They want to go to the Na Pali Coast and there’s no reservations. They want to get food and there’s a 30 minute line, even at a food truck just to place your order. There’s terrible traffic.”

Is More Tourism Inevitable?

Lihue Airport could potentially choose not to expand, DOT airport division officials said in an email. However, the Federal Aviation Administration would question why the airport isn’t working toward addressing air traffic congestion in light of increasing forecast demand. Doing nothing, the division said, could result in the loss of 90% of the division’s funding for Lihue Airport improvements.

That’s because the state, in order to receive FAA funding for airport improvements, agrees to provide a safely operating, maintained airport. Part of that agreement includes planning to accommodate the increasing number of aircraft wanting to schedule flights into Lihue Airport, according to the email.

Lihue Airport’s 20-year master plan expired 13 years ago. State officials are working on a new master plan to better accommodate the large growth in passengers over the years. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige would not make someone from the department’s airport division available for an interview.

The very nature of how airports receive funding is problematic, according to Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami.

“The DOT, in large part, is self-funded, so they are very dependent on the revenue that they generate from the airports to be able to maintain the level of service that all of us enjoy when we have to fly,” he said. “And I think it’s because of this funding mechanism that they are, in a sense, always striving to increase revenue.”

At a recent public meeting, Senate President Ron Kouchi, who represents Kauai, told state airport officials that the plan needs to account for basic considerations, such as whether the island’s highways are equipped to handle more vehicles.

Unsatisfied by the response he received, Kouchi said he and Kauai Rep. Nadine Nakamura are penning a letter to Hawaii’s federal delegation to raise concerns about the airport expansion and to see if the FAA would take into account carrying capacity when forecasting airport use levels and before approving additional flights landing.

Lihue Business Association President Pat Griffin described a sense of unease among Kauai residents familiar with the plan due to its assumption that more tourism is inevitable. 

“The island’s rich culture and vulnerable environment should not be ignored,” she said in an email. “They deserve a belated but prominent place in this discussion.”

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