State transportation officials have decided to abandon a proposal to add three new gates at Lihue Airport after considering community pushback and the ongoing effort by other government agencies to rein in Kauai’s staggering tourism growth.

kauai locator badgeFraught public opposition to the plan to increase the number of airport gates to 12 from nine led the officials to go back to the drawing board.

Even Gov. David Ige publicly declared at a May luncheon that consultants hired by the Hawaii Department of Transportation to draw up an airport modernization plan may have been “tone deaf” to the community’s concerns about the effect of overtourism on quality of life issues.

In a July 6 letter to Kauai’s legislative delegation, DOT Airports Deputy Director Ross Higashi said transportation officials have “stepped back” to align future Lihue Airport improvements with a shift toward a less-is-more tourism model. 

Instead of expanding airport capacity, Higashi said the agency will focus on efforts to modernize Lihue Airport’s existing gates, facilities and infrastructure.

State officials working on a master plan update for Kauai’s Lihue Airport say they will focus on improving the airport’s current facilities rather than increasing capacity to accommodate more travelers. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Lihue Airport’s 20-year master plan expired 13 years ago. Since then, numerous county and state agencies have stepped up to take on a bigger role in managing tourism, which has become a major contributor to traffic, overcrowding at beach parks, wear and tear on infrastructure and an affordable housing crisis.

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 state’s 2021-2023 Kauai Destination Management Action Plan lays out a blueprint toward better visitor management.

But a proposed master plan revamp for Lihue Airport originally did not appear to consider how out of step it was with these pledges.

State transportation officials say the airport master plan rewrite will adopt a new focus on overtourism prevention in line with plans adopted by other county and state agencies.

Kauai lawmakers and residents who helped spur the change applauded the DOT’s willingness to reconsider.

“The Lihue Airport needs help, but it does not need expansion,” said Jonny Wichman, vice president of the Hanalei-Haena Community Association. “It needs to be modernized and redesigned to incorporate easy and efficient public transportation to tie in with the expanding shuttle system currently being developed on Kauai. Our roads are clogged. We need to give visitors easy and efficient alternatives to rental cars.”

Residents who’ve voiced opposition to the DOT’s initial airport expansion plans have broadly agreed that upgrades are seriously needed. The long list of airport deficiencies includes security bottlenecks, insufficient air conditioning and scant food and retail concessions. 

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. 

On July 28, Higashi and other state transportation officials, as well as Kauai legislators, will convene to discuss the reformulated plans to update the Lihue Airport draft master plan. Hosted by the Lihue Business Association, the virtual meeting is open to the public but requires participants to sign up.

The next official meeting in the airport master planning process will take place sometime in late summer, according to DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author