Big waves, crowds
By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Lynda Arakawa
Joe Green's favorite time of the year is winter: The weather's cool, the surf is good, and the North Shore's legendary big waves draw an influx of visitors who boost business at his Hale'iwa surf shop, Surf N Sea.
"I like this time of year," he said. "I'm glad to see it come. The business is very welcomed. All the businesses out here look forward to that."
Green said the winter surf season brings a steady increase of not just tourists, but people who come here to stay for up to three months, such as surfing contest participants. In all, the season means more customers — including local people — for his business.
But Green, like many others on the North Shore, is also aware of the less-desirable impacts the increased flow of people has on the community.
"I hear a lot of guys complaining about the crowds in the water, litter on the beaches and traffic," he said.
With Hawai'i on track to welcome a record 7.4 million visitors this year, there could be more tourists than ever visiting the North Shore this winter. About 51 percent of O'ahu overnight tourists visit the North Shore, according to a survey released by the Hawai'i Tourism Authority last year.
Taking into account those figures, the North Shore may see about 2.4 million tourists this year, said Antya Miller, executive director of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.
Thanks in part to increased media exposure, as in the 2002 movie "Blue Crush," which was filmed on the North Shore, the area has become a popular visitor destination not only during the winter surf season but in the summer, which traditionally had been slow.
Miller said one merchant commented to her that it was so busy this summer, "he thought Hale-'iwa was going to implode."
Businesses certainly are not complaining, she said, but "I think some of them were glad that there was a bit of a slowdown" after the summer.
But not for long. It's still a slower period for visitors, but the North Shore already has begun seeing its annual big winter swells, and the 22nd Annual Xcel Pro surf contest kicks off this week.
Traffic is probably the biggest issue among residents, said Kathleen Pahinui, chairwoman of the North Shore Neighborhood Board. Visitors also have been going to Laniakea Beach, also known as Turtle Beach, to see the turtles lounging there. The crowds have generated concerns about traffic and safety.
"We love our visitors, we want them to come, but we also need to make sure that we have the infrastructure to accommodate them in terms of making sure we have the traffic situation under control," Pahinui said.
She said the Neighborhood Board has been working with government officials toward short-term and long-term solutions to traffic problems.
"A lot of our community residents and businesses depend on the visitors, so we're not interested in turning them away," Pahinui said. "But we just want to make sure that we don't affect the quality of life for our residents.
"Not all the businesses cater to the tourists, but ... a lot of them do. Even the grocery stores, they make money off the visitors, because they come and stay, especially during the surf season. So everyone benefits a great deal from it and a lot of people make money off of it."
Interest in surfing has grown, particularly among women, said Mike Markrich of Markrich Research, who has studied surf-contest crowds on the North Shore. Since "Blue Crush" came out, the number of women surfers has been increasing by at least 10 percent a year, he said.
"But what happened was, people then wanted to see the actual places that were tied in with this mythological lifestyle that they saw in movies or they read about in magazines, and they found out they could do this throughout the year," he said. "Even though the waves weren't breaking, they still found themselves with this connection.
"The North Shore is a destination. It used to be a place, and now it's a destination. All you have to do is go some morning to the Starbucks on the North Shore and look around and see some people who are just wearing shorts and slippers, and there's a whole bunch of other people all dressed up just happy and thrilled to be there among them."
LURED BY MEDIA
The winter season is the busiest time of the year for Kenny Usamanont, who owns Haleiwa Eats with his wife.
"We always look forward to the surf season, because once it's up, our business goes up as well," he said. Visitors make up the majority of his customers. "They always ask me where are the best breaks that we see on the 'Blue Crush' movie."
Pennsylvania residents Perry Chepelsky and Lynn Kline made the drive out to the North Shore last week from Waikiki to see the waves. "We've seen Banzai Pipeline on TV for years — it's always on ESPN or any sports channel," said Kline, a 54-year-old veterinary assistant. During her visit, she bought an aloha shirt and bracelet charms in the North Shore Marketplace.
Illinois residents Dustin and Kelley Henry, here on their honeymoon, drove to the North Shore to check out the surf and eat at Cholos Homestyle Mexican Restaurant, recommended by a waitress. "It's nice, because where we're staying in Waikiki, it's so packed," Dustin Henry said. "Here, there's a lot of people, but not as many on the beach."
Arizona teacher Peggy Ahmad and her two daughters visited the North Shore, in part to see the famed Banzai Pipeline. Ahmad also read a travel article featuring the cast of the popular ABC drama "Lost," which is filmed on O'ahu.
"Out of the five top places that this cast member said to do in Hawai'i, one was ... to go to Hale'iwa, eat at Jamieson's and do all your shopping in the cute little shops," she said. And that they did.
"We spent all our money here," said Ahmad, adding that they bought bowls, sarongs and other gifts for people back home.
At the Waimea Valley Audubon Center, the winter not only means higher attendance from visitors who want to experience the center. It also means more catering business, because of parties and events from surfing-contest sponsors, said marketing and communications director Hazel Shaw. But overall, business is up in other times of the year as well, she said.
"You know how before we could say, 'Summer's the highest season,' or 'Surf season is the highest season'? Because Hawai'i is doing so well, we don't seem to have as many shoulder periods as we used to have. Although you will find, like right now, we are experiencing slower traffic than we certainly will in the month of November."
Shaw acknowledged concerns that the crowds during high surf cause congestion on the road.
"But I am one to quickly point out that it's not just the true visitor affecting the traffic," she said. "Our residents also go out and enjoy the North Shore, and so the roads become congested, given all of that influx.
"There's an upside economywise, and there's a downside infrastructure-wise. How much can the roads really handle, or the parking or the lack of parking?"
Winter Perreira, saleswoman at Silver Moon Emporium in the North Shore Market Place, also said the surf season is the busiest time of the year.
"We depend on it," she said, adding that visitors make up about half of the business.
"The only bummer is that the traffic is bad," she said. "I like that there's a lot of people around. It's definitely needed for the businesses. But you can't do anything about the traffic. That's part of it, right?"
Miller, of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, believes in promoting small businesses in the area and knows how important visitors are. Miller's organization is working with the North Shore Destination Group, which was formed last year to get visitors to stay in the area, in places such as the Turtle Bay Resort, and spend more money rather than drive from Waikiki and leave after a few hours.
Visitors driving to the North Shore for a day "is good for business, but if we keep having more and more visitors, there's a point at which it's going to be counterproductive, because we don't have the infrastructure for more people," she said.
"We don't have the roads, we don't have the sidewalks, we don't have public bathrooms. I've had some reports from some of the Realtors that they've gotten comments from visitors saying, 'I got caught in that traffic and I'm never coming back here again.' So it will eventually probably self-correct because of that situation.
"But by and large, I think everybody realizes that that's the lifeblood of our community. There just needs to be a balance between visitors and residents."
Reach Lynda Arakawa at firstname.lastname@example.org.