After 14 months without tourists, Kauai's North Shore tests the waters again

June 21, 2019, 12:57 p.m.
sunset at Kee Beach on Kauai, Hawaii
Photo: Pierre Leclerc/Shutterstock

Kauai, the oldest of Hawaii's main islands, is one of the rainiest places on Earth. All that rain supports a lush blanket of tropical vegetation, inspiring Kauai's nickname of "the Garden Island" and helping attract more than 1 million tourists every year.

Still, even for a paradise so accustomed to precipitation, rainfall overwhelmed Kauai one weekend in April 2018, when more than 2 feet of rain fell in just 24 hours. Floods and mudslides damaged many roads across the island, including Kuhio Highway, the gateway to Kauai's rugged northern coast, forcing authorities to close a 2-mile stretch of the highway for repairs. It would remain closed for the next 14 months, and due to a lack of alternative routes, this essentially gave the area a yearlong break from tourists.

That was a big change for places like Haena State Park, which reportedly drew about 3,000 visitors per day before the closure. Tourists all but vanished from this and other popular attractions along the coast, including Kee Beach, Kalalau Trail and the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. Only about 750 residents were left in the once-bustling area, and in addition to more peace and quiet, scientists noticed an uptick in local wildlife such as sea turtles, ember parrotfish and bluefin trevally, NBC News reports.

The closed section of Kuhio Highway reopened this week, bolstered by upgrades like a new bridge and wire mesh to thwart future landslides. That means tourists can once again flock to the region, although not quite like they did before. Despite the economic value tourists bring to Hawaii, state officials also face growing pressure to balance tourism with preservation of the islands' natural resources and culture. As part of that effort, Kauai is rolling out new regulations to limit tourist traffic on the reopened highway.

Road to recovery

Kuhio Highway in Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii The Kuhio Highway runs through Hanalei, a small town along the North Shore of Kauai. (Photo: Mese Berg/Shutterstock)

Under the new Haena State Park Master Plan, the park will be limited to 900 visitors per day — a roughly 70% drop from its previous daily average. Advance reservations are now required for out-of-state visitors to enter the park, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and for day hikers to access the Kalalau Trail. The park will also charge a $1 entrance fee plus $5 for parking, although Hawaii residents are exempt from the new fees as well as the reservation system. The new parking lot only holds 100 vehicles, Hawaii Magazine reports, but the plans also include a community-sponsored shuttle service.

The long closure of Kuhio Highway was hard on local businesses like the Hanalei Bay Colony Resort, which has been closed since the 2018 floods, NBC News reports. But the break from tourism also boosted the sense of community among local residents, who say they felt like they knew their neighbors again because they were the only people on the beach. And while some were eager for the highway to reopen, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports, others dreaded the return of tourists, citing their tendency to overcrowd beaches, damage reefs, drive dangerously and illegally park on roadsides, among other things.

That sentiment was on display when the highway reopened, as about 20 protestors formed a human chain Tuesday morning to stop tourists from driving to Haena State Park and other North Shore attractions. The protestors reportedly let construction workers and residents pass through, but turned away about 50 tourists before police arrived and reopened the road.

Despite praise for the new tourism restrictions, protestors say the area still needs more protection from careless visitors. "They reopened for the tourists yesterday. People came speeding in," protestor and Wainiha resident Kaiulani Mahuka tells the Star-Advertiser. "There wasn't anyone to direct traffic. People were going by the hundreds to Lumahai Beach — it's not safe, there's no lifeguard. People were walking all over the reef and they left their rubbish everywhere."

Sharing the coast

Napali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii The Napali Coast is an iconic mountainous shoreline spanning 17 miles of Kauai's North Shore. (Photo: Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock)

The protestors did have at least one positive encounter with tourists, though. Many stuck around after police broke up their blockade, hoping to send a message to the state and talk with passing tourists. At some point that morning, a van full of tourists pulled up on its way to a kayak trip, Mahuka tells Kauai's Garden Island newspaper, and "something really amazing happened."

The van initially drove past, with no apparent reaction to the protest. But it soon returned, Mahuka says, and the passengers got out. They told the protestors they didn't feel right about visiting the area without the blessing of the local community.

That may not be typical, but it does illustrate the kind of balance sought by both protestors and state officials: not just fewer tourists, but also more awareness of how to be a good guest. Smaller crowds should benefit local people and wildlife as well as visitors, and the new regulations might also prompt more tourists to reflect on why such limits are needed. Not everyone thinks those limits are enough, and many residents still want Kuhio Highway closed until more protections are in place. But according to Joel Guy, executive director of the nonprofit launching the new shuttle service, this could be the start of a sea change for tourism in Hawaii. If Kauai's North Shore can make this work, he tells NBC News, other tourist destinations will quickly take notice.

"The idea is to create a better experience for the residents and the visitors and then lessen the impact on the place," he says. "I think it's a pretty unique model that can hopefully be used in other places."