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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Tour firm could face fine for Manoa Falls hike

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Tour companies that are improperly dumping crowds of visitors at public hiking trails are endangering the scenic areas and their customers, the state said.

State officials, calling the Manoa Falls Trail a "poster child for ecotourism," want to crack down on tour operators who bring visitors to the falls without proper permits.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Now, the Board of Land and Natural Resources is considering whether to impose a $2,500 fine on one business that is accused of repeatedly taking customers up the Manoa Falls Trail without a permit.

The board's decision, expected tomorrow, could put teeth into tour company regulations and promote Hawai'i's ecotourism around the world, officials said.

Unregulated tours are a particular concern at Manoa Falls Trail — a gentle uphill hike of less than a mile that winds through lush rainforest and across a small stream, ending at a spectacular 100-foot waterfall.

"Manoa Falls is kind of the poster child for ecotourism and it is not really working until we can eliminate the unregulated companies," said Curt Cottrell, manager of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Na Ala Hele trails program.

The trail is one of the five most popular hikes in the state because it is close to Waikiki and boasts a spectacular falls.

Fees paid by legal commercial tour operators using the Manoa Falls Trail from April to December 2004.

Fee paid by tour operators per customer

The number of commercial groups that have permits to use seven of O'ahu's public hiking trails for tours.

Fine the state wants to impose on businesses that use trails for profit without a permit.

100 people
Average number that use the Manoa Falls trail on a weekday.

175 people
The average number on weekends.

100 feet
The height of Manoa Falls.
Nathan Diaz, 8, insisted his family take him to see a waterfall while on vacation from Orange County, Calif. With his brother Nicholas, 10, and parents Kamron Diaz and Ricardo Herniques, the family made the hike Tuesday.

"We asked the concierge at Hilton hotel where there is a trail we could hike up ourselves," Herniques said. "(Manoa trail) was great. It gives you a real feel like being in the jungle. A real good look at Hawai'i and it's good to get away from Waikiki."

The family, which went to the trail on their own, passed one group that was there with a commercial tour company. They had no problem getting around the group on the trail's narrow path.

A maximum of five 12-person groups a day can reserve a slot and take a tour group, but the groups cannot hike on weekends or holidays, according to state rules.

Crowds at Manoa Falls increased after Sacred Falls State Park was closed after a 1999 rockslide that killed eight people. Commercial permits were revoked in February 2001 because the state could not keep out illegal tour operators and the trail suffered from overuse. Eight permits were later issued.

Tour operators without permits not only bring too many people, they also fail to pay fees necessary for trail maintenance, Cottrell said.

These companies "give Hawai'i a bad reputation on the global ecotourism market because of the lack of quality information they provide," he said. "They undercut legitimate operators and rob them of paying patrons and deny the trail program of revenue that could be used for continued improvements because they are not part of the system."

The trail was closed for three months in 2002 after a landslide near the falls. The state repaired the trail and built an area to view the waterfall safely. Signs were put up warning hikers to stay away from the landslide area, including the pool at the base of the waterfall.

Cottrell said damage to the trail is not the primary issue now. But the trail needs parking and restroom improvements, which the fees could help pay for.

"A primary concern is at the end of the trail since we've restricted the use of the pool," he said. "It gets a little crowded and would benefit from improvements — an interpretive display, an elevated deck to view the falls — to make it a little more comfortable."

The state tomorrow will consider fines against Magnum Tickets and Tours, which Cottrell said is the most persistent violator of permit rules. Cottrell said issuing citations against the company has not worked as a deterrent.

Lucia Elmaleh, who conducts the Magnum hiking tours through her ex-husband's company, said she no longer takes groups to the Manoa trail. Elmaleh said she has tried to get a license to operate through the state but was told she would need to be free of any violations for one year before she would be eligible.

"I want to pay, but they don't want me to pay," Elmaleh said. "They don't accept me because they don't like me. I don't care how much it costs, I want to get a license to bring the people in. I wish I could go there. All the companies hate us because we charging a very small amount."

Board to meet

Who: The Board of Land and Natural Resources

What: Public meeting

When: 9 a.m. tomorrow

Where: Kalanimoku Building, room 132, 1151 Punchbowl St.

Why: To decide if civil penalties are appropriate for a commercial tour operator that has been using public hiking trails without a permit.

Magnum charges $21 for its "Jungle Waterfall Tour," Elmaleh said. Other companies charge $40 and up for their packages, she said.

The company has been cited three times since 2000 in connection with improper tours, most recently in August. Each time, it was found guilty and fined. The state says its staff and other hikers have seen the company conducting improper tours on several other occasions.

Under Hawai'i Administrative Rules, the Board of Land and Natural Resources oversees commercial activity on state land and can assess penalties, something it has not done before.

"We feel we have clearly enough documentation in the past five years to approach the board and say, 'Look, the (citations) do not deter the illegals,' " Cottrell said. "We have to start initiating big fines to show ... that the rules actually do matter. To show the legitimate tour operators who are paying us their fees that we are going to level the playing field."

Reach James Gonser at 535-2431 or jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com.