Hāʻena shuttle on Kaua’i hits bump in road to success
December 11, 2022, 6:30 AM HST
In recent weeks, hundreds of cars have been turned away at Hāʻena State Park, the gateway to the world-famous Nā Pali Coast on Kaua‘i’s North Shore, with reports of upset visitors not knowing they needed to go through the reservation and shuttle system.
But the negative headlines belie the success North Shore community groups have found under Hāʻena’s current system to manage the number of visitors, which had gotten out of control.
The visitor-management apparatus has reduced the number of daily visitors to Hāʻena State Park from 3,000 to 900 since its inception in 2019, doing much to reduce overcrowding that kept local residents from their own public spaces.
“When you look at a headline that says, ‘Hundreds of people getting turned away everyday’ … We turn away very few,” said Joel Guy, executive director of The Hanalei Initiative. “We turn around a lot of people because they’re at the end of their route.”
The Hanalei Initiative, under contract to fellow nonprofit Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana, took over the Hāʻena State Park shuttle and reservation system in July 2021. The Initiative had previously operated the shuttle in conjunction with a for-profit entity.
The overcrowding within Hāʻena State Park overwhelmed facilities, diminished resources and was accompanied by inappropriate activities and deterioration of safety, according to the latest Hā‘ena State Park Master Plan.
The nuisance also was felt on the way into the park, where lanes were notoriously congested and illegal parking was rampant. State lawmakers raised parking tickets outside Hāʻena from $35 to $235 in 2019 to discourage visiting drivers’ bad behavior, and the Kaua‘i Police Department created a new county position dedicated to parking enforcement.
Today, those looking for a taste of the chaos that once held sway at Hā‘ena State Park need only visit Hā‘ena Beach Park, located just up the road. The 5 1/2-acre county site, which features a pavilion, comfort stations and a lifeguarded beach, does not require reservations. But nearby parking can be impossible to find, and a recent trip to the North Shore uncovered several cars backed out into the roadway, as they waited for spaces to open up in the beach’s parking lot.
The vast majority of cars turned around at the Hāʻena State Park gate – which also represents the literal end of the road on the North Shore – are sightseers who know they have to make a U-turn, according to Guy.
“I would say 85% of the people that come to that gate have no intention of getting out of the car,” Guy said.
A later visit to the gate bore out his claim. Of the more than 10 vehicles that approached the gate in as many minutes, nine were sightseers as described by Guy. Other visitors included a car of tourists armed with reservations and a local bicyclist.
The gate attendant on duty expressed surprise when told Guy believed 85% of cars contained pleasure cruisers. Consulting his records, he put the number at 95%.
The attendant acknowledged some visitors are upset when told they need reservations to enter the state park. And record-keeping and exit interviews conducted by The Hanalei Initiative have shown where these tourists come from.
“Overwhelmingly, it’s the vacation rentals, because they don’t have a concierge service,” Guy said.
He’s referring to “boutique” operations including accommodations offered through online platforms like Airbnb.
“You never hear of a hotel person getting turned around,” Guy continued. “It’s not the resorts and it’s not even the high-volume vacation rental companies. Those guys have got [their information and messaging] down.”
Hāʻena parking and entry reservations are available 30 days in advance. Non-residents need to purchase both $10 parking and $5 entry reservations, which are required for everyone in the vehicle.
Parking reservations are only good for the time slots indicated. Non-residents who want to park for longer than one time slot need to purchase additional reservations.
Roundtrip shuttle rides cost $35 per passenger aged 16 and up. Tickets for passengers aged 4 to 15 are $25, and children aged three and younger ride for free on lap.
All residents of the State of Hawai‘i may enter the park without a reservation, with a valid form of ID. The Hanalei Initiative is now developing new rules to accommodate Kaua‘i locals visiting with out-of-state friends and family.
Hāʻena’s entry system is not unique on Kaua‘i. Since April 2021, non-residents over the age of 3 must pay $5 per person and $10 per vehicle to enter Kōkeʻe State Park and Waimea Canyon State Park on the island’s West Side. But advance registration is not needed at those two state parks.
North Shore community members who helped shape the Hāʻena shuttle system, including Kaua‘i State Rep. Nadine Nakamura (District 15) and National Tropical Botanical Garden President Chipper Wichman, are now crafting a handbook documenting their process, according to Guy.
He said they already communicate with managers of other tourist hotspots across the state, including locations on Maui and the Big Island.
Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauaʻi Visitors Bureau, is well-versed in the situation at Hāʻena State Park. Her team is working with The Hanalei Initiative to continue spreading the word among companies managing local short-term rentals on behalf of off-island owners.
Kanoho indicated these absentees should step up.
“You have mainland owners who are not part of anything … They’re not connected much at all,” she said. “My philosophy has always been, anybody who rents an accommodation on the island of Kaua‘i, it’s their job to stay up to speed with what’s what. For emergencies, for updates, for changes, for how to best represent the island and share Kaua‘i with their guests.”
Well-meaning residents and former visitors have also been identified as sources of misinformation surrounding Hāʻena State Park.
Access to Hanakāpiʻai Falls is a particularly misunderstood issue, according to Kanoho, noting reservations are indeed needed to access the popular site. Her advice to residents and past guests: Please continue to share information about Kaua‘i, but don’t assume what was true five years ago is true today.
The recent commotion at Hāʻena is a hiccup in a project that’s otherwise met with notable success, according to Guy, who said doubters believed the shuttle and reservation system could not be self-sufficient.
But the system has proven to be more than independent. It’s even generating revenue, which is divided between the The Hanalei Initiative, Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana and The Waipā Foundation, which owns the land on which the shuttle station operates.
The groups declined to provide figures generated by the Hāʻena shuttle. Guy and his colleagues are adamant the system’s primary objective remains getting rental cars off congested North Shore roads, and preserving access for local residents.
Guy gestured in the direction of the half-empty Hāʻena parking lot, from his chair in Hanalei.
“We’re not here to fill the parking lot. We’re here to get those numbers [900 people maximum per day],” he said. “And if we shuttle more in, that’s success, right? That’s the metric of success, less cars.”
The Hanalei Initiative, Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana and The Waipā Foundation funnel any shuttle earnings back into the shuttle operation itself, or related community projects.
The nonprofit Waipā Foundation has stewarded the 1,600-acre ahupua’a of Waipā for more than 20 years, under a lease from landowner Kamehameha Schools. Its operations include a community complex featuring public gathering spaces and facilities for small-scale agricultural operations, including a state-certified commercial kitchen and poi mill.
The foundation also hosts regularly-scheduled festivals, farmers markets and community workdays. More than 1,000 learners from the island, state and mainland visit the site each year, according to Executive Director Stacy M. Sproat.
“It’s a great model to have this network of nonprofits, that’s managing a system like this and bringing benefits to the community,” she said.
Shuttle funds contribute to the payment of routine bills, Sproat continued. “Paying bills – that’s not a warm and fuzzy thing to talk about, you know, but it does support all the way across the board.”
Hui Maka‘āinana o Makana Executive Director Pua Chin said volunteers remain the organization’s “boots on the ground” in an emailed response to Kaua‘i Now, noting Hui volunteers logged 13,000 man hours worth an estimated $325,000 in 2021.
After current shuttle operations began that year, “shuttle income combined with a mix of grants from both private and individual donors has helped to accelerate the Hui’s ability to perpetuate cultural and academic educational opportunities and workshops, provide three full time and four part time jobs within the community, expand our restoration and farming footprint and provide a healthy food source for our community,” Chin wrote.
That’s a 100% reinvestment into Hāʻena State Park and the Hui’s related restoration and preservation efforts, according to Chin.
Hui projects partially benefitting from shuttle funding include expansion and restoration of archeological and historical loʻi kalo field sites; expansion, clean up and removal in other areas used as dump sites during the Taylor Camp era; and partnerships with other entities to host cultural education workshops, summer programs and researchers.
Other notable Hui initiatives also include the nearshore Community Based Subsistence Fishing Area and related Makai Watch program, a partnership with DLNR to monitor and educate visitors and residents on the CBSFA’s rules.
“Residents, not just on the North Shore but across Kaua‘i, have expressed their pleasure at being able to visit after years of not wanting to deal with the mayhem that was occurring at Keʻe,” Chin concluded. “Now we see residents coming every day. They are able to bring their families to enjoy the resources of the park and hiking trails to the Nā Pali coast. In addition, both residents and visitors alike have commented that with less people their experience while at Keʻe is much more pleasant.”
For more information about access to Hāʻena State Park, including Hanakāpiʻai Falls, and to purchase shuttle reservations, parking and entry passes, visit the dedicated DLNR Division of State Parks webpage or Gohaena.com.