Mauna Kea summit closure impacts tour business

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As University of Hawaii officials offer no timeline for reopening the Mauna Kea summit road and visitor center, some tour operators who rely on the mountain for business say that each day brings them closer to layoffs.

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As University of Hawaii officials offer no timeline for reopening the Mauna Kea summit road and visitor center, some tour operators who rely on the mountain for business say that each day brings them closer to layoffs.

“Our business is slowly dying here because of what’s going on,” said Mike Sessions, general manager of Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, one of eight operators licensed to bring visitors to the 13,796-foot peak.

The company takes 28 people to the summit each day, charging $212 a head for an eight to nine-hour tour that includes a dinner served at the visitor center, orientation and cultural instruction, time on the summit at sunset, and stargazing at the 9,200-foot level. MKSA takes about 10,000 clients to the top each year, and the excursions book weeks in advance. The tour company and others that use the summit pay the Office of Mauna Kea Management $6 per client to help cover road maintenance, water supplies and toilets.

But those tours ended abruptly on Tuesday of last week, when opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope blocked the summit road with stones, prompting its closure. Since then, university officials have been trying to determine if the road is safe to reopen.

“We’ve already lost $50,000 for this,” Sessions said. “We have people collecting temporary unemployment.”

“It’s a political road closure, not a safety closure,” he said. “We’ve reached our tipping point. We think they’re going to close it off to the public for awhile, see how that sits with people, then say this is the norm.”

Protestors have said that blocking tourist and other public access was not their intention. The university insists the closure is not a prelude to shutting Mauna Kea away from the public.

While the UH has the power to temporarily close the mountain for safety reasons, “it was part of the lease agreement with DLNR that, if we were to take over responsibility for the road, we have to keep it open to the public,” UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl told West Hawaii Today.

The summit road will remain closed through this week as crews assess the safety of slopes where protestors pried loose the rocks used to block construction crews from reaching the TMT site. The university also needs to decide what to do with all of the extra rocks on the side of the road, and continues to eye the prospect of using the stone to shore up an erosion-prone hairpin on the road, Meisenzahl said. As for what happens beyond the end of the week, Meisenzahl said he shouldn’t speculate.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” he said. “We have to make sure the road is safe for two-way traffic.”

Meisenzahl said the university has demonstrated its commitment for decades to keeping the road open to the public, grading the surface twice a week and keeping it passable for two-wheel-drive vehicles.

“The bottom line is, we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said. “And if we give in to public pressure and open the road before it’s safe and someone does get hurt, we are liable for it.”

Sessions and others have been frustrated by the lack of concrete information on when they can proceed with business.

“We have passenger we have to contact, who need to make plans and not have their vacation held hostage,” Sessions said.

Hawaii Forest and Trail, which offers a variety of ecotours around the island, is also losing revenue, but is less affected by the closure of the visitor center. Unlike Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, the company serves dinner and offers access to restrooms at the Humuula Sheep Station near the junction of the Mauna Kea Access Road and the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

But taking clients up to the visitor center level for sunsets and star gazing hasn’t filled the gap left by the lack of summit access, said Rob Pacheco, owner of Hawaii Forest and Trail.

“The revenue loss for us is significant, but we have other tours,” Pacheco said. “For some of these guys, their whole business is around Mauna Kea.”

Emmy Okawa, head of sales and marketing for Taikobo Hawaii Inc., said the summit is a huge draw for Japanese visitors, rising as it does more than 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain.

“They’re coming all the way from Japan, planning way ahead of time,” she said.

Loss of access to restrooms at the visitor center has made it hard on the company’s alternative tours to the 9,200-foot level, and bookings for those shorter excursions have struggled, Okawa said.

Essentially, the tour operators are in limbo, waiting to see what will be decided, she said.

The university is currently in assessment mode and has yet to yet to grapple with ways to reopen the visitor center, Meisenzahl said. The influx of activity surrounding the protests has taxed staff, electricity, water and sewage capacity at the center over the last several months, he said.

“We have been questioned by some, for months, about why we left it open so long,” he said. “There is no timetable as far as when we can reopen.”

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Meisenzahl said the center has been a valuable venue for explaining the cultural and scientific significance of the mountain to the visiting public.

“This was the last thing we wanted to do,” Meisenzahl said. “The visitor center was our interface with the community.”

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