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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Keeping Moloka'i Moloka'i

Moloka'i photo gallery

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

Tourists Nathaniel and JaLyn Tiffany take in a view of West Moloka'i from Moloka'i Ranch's Lodge in Maunaloa. The couple sought out the island's quiet isolation.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Moloka'i resident and activist Walter Ritte, at the Keawanui Fishpond, complains that the Friendly Isle already has far too many strangers in its midst.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Words carved in a wooden bench reflect the position of many on Moloka'i regarding tourism on their island.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Residents of the town of Kaunakakai on Moloka'i are proud of being able to live in a community where doors go unlocked and nearly everyone knows everyone else.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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"Main Street" in Kaunakakai, Moloka'i, presents a distinctive alternative for shopping to the few tourists the island is able to accommodate.

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Lakin Gevirtz, and daughter, Maddy, 2, with sister-in-law, Mitie Tucker, and son, Ben Tucker Graham, 2, enjoy an isolated Moloka'i beach.

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Anakala Pilipo Solatorio stands at one of Moloka'i Ranch's Kaupoa Beach Village tentalows. Each unit is equipped with two tent/bedroom structures and one bathroom facility.

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As Hawai'i's tourism industry sprints to another record year, Moloka'i has been left in the dust.

And that's the way many on the island seem to like it.

Last year, when the rest of Hawai'i was hosting a record number of visitors, Moloka'i arrivals were 35 percent below the island's 1992 peak of 116,000 visitors. While hotels statewide are running more than 80 percent full this year, Moloka'i's accommodations are 55 percent empty.

"We like it this way," said Nelma Pua'a, a 42-year-old waitress at Kualapuu Cook House.

There are benefits to an undersized tourism industry and population of only 7,400.

"We can trust everybody, you can still leave your keys in the cars, you don't have to lock up your house," Pua'a said. "I just want to keep it the way it is."

Pua'a will likely get her wish as few large tourism companies want to invest in a place where there is little infrastructure, a small labor pool and an undercurrent of community opposition.

"There's been a lot of talk, but nobody ever regarded (development on Moloka'i) seriously," said David Carey, president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises Group, which operates more than 25 hotels and condos in Hawai'i. "A community has to be willing to support and be behind a development for it to be successful. You want happy employees who want you to be there; you want happy neighbors."

Outrigger considered managing the 152-room Kaluako'i Resort more than a decade ago, but rejected the idea. The resort closed in 2001 and about 100 workers were laid off.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts isn't exploring opportunities on Moloka'i but would be interested in being involved in a project if it worked both economically and for the community, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawai'i and French Polynesia.

"I personally think it's one of the most beautiful islands and clearly the most Hawaiian experience you're going to get, so I think that lends itself to a great visitor product," he said. "But is that what the community wants? And who's willing to go and put that together?"

Starwood, which owns the Sheraton brand, managed the Kaluako'i Resort under a 10-year contract from 1977 to 1987 and operated Moloka'i Ranch's Lodge and Beach Village for little more than a year beginning in 2002. Vieira said Starwood wanted the 22-unit Lodge expanded, which Moloka'i Ranch wasn't ready to do, so the two parted ways.

Most Moloka'i residents interviewed this month said they would welcome the jobs and small business opportunities that more tourism would bring, but only if it is done on their terms.

Their terms include limiting tourist arrivals to a number that won't threaten the laid-back lifestyle that Moloka'i residents say has disappeared on other islands. They also want to prevent a flood of Mainland transplants from buying property and altering the culture.

"Just visit but go home," is carved into a bench near the Keawanui fishpond managed by Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte Jr. "Hawaii not for sale," reads a second bench.

Ritte represents the extreme end of the anti-tourism movement on Moloka'i. In December 2000, Ritte was sentenced to a year of probation and 500 hours of community service after pleading guilty to charges he burned down a cabin at Moloka'i Ranch, the island's most upscale accommodation.

Ritte and another Moloka'i man, Clarence Halona Kaopuiki, were acquitted of charges alleging they caused nearly $1 million damage to a Moloka'i Ranch water line in February 1996.

In May, Ritte attended a Native Hawaiian tourism conference wearing a T-shirt that read "Tourism Sucks."

"I don't care how many jobs (tourism brings)," Ritte said. "That's not the answer, how many jobs I going get. Look at what you did to us first and let's talk about that for a while."

"They (tourists) like it so much that they're moving here," Ritte said. "And that is causing real huge problems. We don't know anybody in the stores anymore. We don't know who all these people coming to meetings anymore. Who the hell are all these people? We've never seen them before."

Some residents also protested a plan to have regular cruise ship visits in 2003, and the companies eventually decided not to stop in Moloka'i.

Last year, University of Hawai'i ethnic studies professor Davianna McGregor conducted interviews and meetings with island residents, businesses and others about tourism on Moloka'i, and in February, released a five-year plan for sustainable tourism based on those meetings for the Moloka'i Enterprise Community.

Her conclusion was that Moloka'i has a different set of priorities. Success would be measured not only by hotel occupancy and visitor spending, but in whether limu gathering areas and favorite fishing spots are still abundant. Indicators of a failed tourism plan include crowded beaches, the installation of a traffic light in Kaunakakai (Moloka'i's largest town), and the need for residents to lock their cars and homes.

"The level of expansion needs to be acceptable to Moloka'i residents, respectful of the Native Hawaiian culture, and protective of the island's natural resources," McGregor wrote in the report, the Moloka'i Responsible Tour-ism Initiative.

"In the final analysis, the challenge is to 'Keep Moloka'i Moloka'i' while expanding visitor activities that will diversify and enhance a sustainable economy for the island of Moloka'i."

The Moloka'i community recognizes that tourism can help the economy, but wants it to be secondary to agriculture, said McGregor. Moloka'i would also welcome more kama'aina visitors from other islands and the reopening of the shuttered Kaluako'i Hotel, she said.

Eldon "Buzzy" Sproat, co-owner of Moloka'i Mule Ride, believes the island would benefit from more tourism. His company takes up to 13 people a day to Kalaupapa and at times turns people away because there are not enough mules. He said he's working on obtaining more mules.

"There's not many jobs on the island, and a lot of people that live here depend on visitors coming to the island," Sproat said. "We need the people to come. If they stop coming we're in trouble."

The issue that seems to generate the most heat from residents is visitors who buy property.

"It's not just tourism. It's also the development of the land and the selling of the property to outsiders and everything else that comes with tourism," said Matt Yamashita, director of the Akaku Molokai Media Center, a community television organization.

Brokers and residents on the island have said Moloka'i home prices have been driven up by Mainland buyers seeking vacation homes and Maui residents who have been priced out of their market.

Perhaps the most controversial example was computer software guru John McAfee's sale of 1,046 acres of agriculture and conservation land at an auction last year amid protests from the community.

Concerns about outsiders buying property have also been ignited by a proposal for Moloka'i Ranch to develop 200 lots at La'au Point. The proposal is part of a master plan worked on for about two years by Moloka'i Ranch and island residents to transfer control of most of the ranch's 65,000 acres to the community.

The plan includes reopening the 152-room Kaluako'i, which would add about 100 more jobs to the island, and would prevent development on more than 55,000 acres through community land trust donations and protective easement restrictions.

Some residents fear the 200 lots would create an exclusive community of millionaire transplants, while others support the plan because it preserves a large swath of land.

Tuddie Purdy, a Hawaiian homesteader who has been hosting visitors on his macadamia nut farm since 1982, has printed up bumper stickers that read: "Moloka'i ... Not for sale. Just Visit. Our lifestyle & economy depends on it."

The tourism industry that does exist on Moloka'i tries to take advantage of the undeveloped image of the place.

They are proud of not only what Moloka'i offers but in what it lacks: no traffic, no stoplights, no flashy luxury stores or high-rise hotels. The three-story Lodge at Moloka'i Ranch has the only elevator on the island. The main highway is two lanes.

"There's an island in Hawai'i that the world has left behind," the Moloka'i Visitors Association web site reads. "A place where there are no buildings taller than a coconut tree. No traffic and no traffic lights. Where nature calls you to push yourself to the limit and pull yourself together."

There's some movement to bring more visitors and improve accommodations. Moloka'i Ranch, which acquired the Kaluako'i Resort after its Japanese owner closed it in 2001, plans to renovate and reopen the townhouse style hotel by early 2008.

The low-rise, 54-unit Hotel Moloka'i is also undergoing a $1 million renovation.

Ultimately, those on Moloka'i want visitors to appreciate the island for what it is.

"If you want to come and dance on the tables and paint the town red and go window shopping, this probably isn't the island for you," said Teri Waros, general manager of The Lodge & Beach Village at Moloka'i Ranch. "It's not for everybody, but for the people who it's for, there's no better place."

That's just fine with visitors like Chicago attorneys JaLyn and Nathaniel Tiffany, who spent several days on Moloka'i after a stay on Maui for their honeymoon. The couple couldn't find an open restaurant after 9 p.m., but liked that there's no traffic.

"We live in Chicago, so maybe we're just tired of big city life and we just had to get out to more open spaces," said Nathaniel Tiffany.

Visitors Jamie and Nick Denler also appreciated the island's quiet, laid-back atmosphere. The couple spent part of their honeymoon at the Moloka'i Ranch's Beach Village tentalows at Kaupoa Beach, which are at the end of a bumpy, 20-minute ride along a private, unpaved road. The engineers from Portland, Ore., spent three nights on Moloka'i after a week on the Big Island and enjoyed being away from the typical Hawai'i tourist areas.

"It's peaceful," Nick Denler said. "We like that it's not overcrowded with tourists. We were looking for something a little out of the mainstream, somewhere we can kick back and relax, and make sure that we completely unwind before we go back to the real world."

"We were told we could come here to watch the grass grow," Jamie Denler said. "And we said, 'Well, that's exactly where we're going.' No TV and no radio, that's nice."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.