Here’s why Hawaii’s state parks expect to triple their revenues

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Tents of various shapes and sizes were scattered around Malaekahana campground on a recent Sunday morning. One served as a pantry with canned goods, cereals, and bread, while others housed large tables with rice cookers, slow cookers, and toasters.

Some two person mini tents were tucked away with easy access to Malaekahana beach.

Recreational camping has returned to normal capacity after months of closures and restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but local residents have overtaken tourists in reserving spots on most of the state’s beaches.

At home in Mililani, a few minutes before midnight, Shanel Nishimura watches with her family and jumps on FaceTime with her camper friends. They all open multiple devices on the Department of Lands and Natural Resources online reservation center and have their automatically recorded credit card information ready to use.

“It’s like this lottery,” she said. “Every time it’s like a mad race to get the sites.”

Campers take a short walk from the campsite to the beach at Malaekahana Beach Park. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

To allow more flexibility and reduce the number of cancellations related to Covid, the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources modified the reservation system in June 2020 not to book more than 30 days in advance instead of a year.

The DLNR has also increased all parking and entrance fees for foreign visitors to Hawaii State Parks. It waived these fees for residents, but implemented “modest increases” in camping and accommodation fees for all users.

Fee increases have brought an unexpected influx of cash, and DLNR’s state parks division is on track to triple its previous average annual income by $ 5 million.

“With the new fees recently implemented at nine parks, this annual revenue could approach $ 15 million if the number of current customers is maintained,” said Deputy State Parks Administrator Alan Carpenter.

According to Carpenter, the 30-day reservation system strongly favors locals and almost all campsites have been primarily, if not completely, booked by local families, with the exception of Napali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Waianapanapa State Park in Maui, which have long been popular with tourists.

“If we are allowed to spend the income we receive in our parks to better manage them and develop our staff, we really have the potential to finally reach this place where we need to be as a park management agency,” said Carpenter said. noted.

“City of tents”

The situation was radically different in March 2020 when all state parks in Oahu and Kauai, and most on the island of Hawaii, Maui and Molokai, closed. The decisions were “100% driven by what the county mayors decided,” Carpenter said.

In the first few months of the pandemic, five Kauai County beach parks were identified as safe areas for the homeless, but that provision ended in March as the state decided to reopen the Kauai Campground. Hobbies.

In June 2020, most of the islands’ parks were reopening their doors with limited use of capacity; However, throughout the year the rules continued to fluctuate as the coronavirus affected counties differently.

In addition, some parks in Kauai were forced to close in March due to flooding and landslides, and Carpenter said they had to pay back around half a million dollars.

Like the nesting turtles that returned to the beach in the early months of the pandemic, some local families took advantage of capacity limitations with all other campsites stranded and a cap of five people for each site instead of 10.

Nishimura misses these days.

“Camping was our retreat, but it got a lot busier,” she said, recalling several issues when she and her family drove to Malaekahana Campground on Remembrance Day.

Over the weekend, Nishimura said she had a double booked campsite with another family and could not contact DLNR. One night, she said a group of young campers blew up inappropriate music long after midnight and, again, had no one to contact.

“I don’t know what we were thinking,” Nishimura said with a laugh, reflecting back on their Memorial Day weekend camping trip. “It was like a city of tents. I didn’t feel relaxing anymore.

Despite the antics of their holiday weekend neighbors, Nishimura said a pandemic silver liner has been more quality time outside with family and friends.

“We’re always looking to travel and get out there, but we’ve been able to discover new beaches and new places that we’ve never been before,” she said.

Malaekahana State Park is a popular campground. Lauren Teruya / Civil Beat / 2021

Spirit of adventure

As tourism to the islands picks up, Carpenter said he would not support the idea that recreational camping could be an affordable option for visitors.

According to preliminary visitor statistics released jointly by the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, more than 520,000 visitors arrived in June from the western United States – the Pacific and mountain regions – well above 10,000 visitors in June 2020, and a 15% increase from 2019. Visitors from Japan are still down 98% from 2019.

With rental cars sold out months in advance and nearly 90% of mainland visitors staying in hotels, condominiums, rental homes, and timeshares, campgrounds are largely left to locals.

However, in Kauai, a 1980 Westfalia Volkwagen Van offers mainland visitors a whole different camping adventure for $ 145 a night. Three years ago, Maciah Bilodeau and his wife bought and built their van to travel around the island with their son, quickly realizing it could turn into a successful business.

After living in Kauai for 29 years, Bilodeau said he believed vacation rental homes negatively impacted the affordability of housing for residents, so an RV business seemed like a great idea.

Bilodeau built his 1980 Volkswagen camper van in Kauai to include sleeping space, dining, and running water. Courtesy: Misty Bilodeau

“We thought, what if we just make a few vans and send people out on the road? Then they won’t be in a house, ”he said.

He said renters ranged from adventure seekers in their twenties to retired couples with decades of road travel under their belt – noting that his three vans were between 20 and 40 years old.

“I had to become a mechanic,” he says. “These Westies, they’re all old. It is from 1980 to 1990 so this is the time when the problems start to happen and you have to deal with electrical and mechanical issues.

Carpenter said only one state park in Maui houses RVs, so the rest should operate like a normal car, meaning renters would have to park in a stall with a permit and stay in one. tent on a campsite.

While there are private campsites that accommodate RVs, Carpenter said he saw vans parked across the islands in illegal areas.

Bilodeau said it provides camping information to its tenants as well as tent set up in the vans.

“It would give me a bad impression if my vans always parked somewhere that it’s not supposed to be,” he said.

The application is not easy

Carpenter acknowledged that enforcing the rules at campsites is a challenge as park management staff rely on partnerships with volunteers from local nonprofits to ensure everyone is following the law. .

He said he would like to use some of the increased income to change this, including providing more assistance on the ground to improve safety and security.

“We are moving in the right direction from a law enforcement perspective, but we are nowhere near it,” Carpenter said. “We are severely understaffed for our mandate, especially in the face of increasing tourism.”

While there is a DLNR division of resource conservation and enforcement, Dan Dennison, DLNR senior communications director, said none of the state’s 100 officers were specifically assigned to parks in State.

The enforcement division is “responsible for state laws and administrative rules related to the conservation of natural and cultural resources on more than 700 miles of coastline and several million acres of land,” Dennison said.

According to state budgets, DOCARE will receive an additional $ 3 million in general funds and over $ 2 million in Covid relief funds for the next fiscal year, while the budget for the state parks division remains the same.

While Carpenter has big dreams for the future, his current focus is on hiring more people.

“How can we expect visitors to behave if we don’t tell them how to behave, right?” “, did he declare. “I think most people want to play by the rules and protect resources, but they need someone to help them do it.”

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