More than the mountain: New tours offered to fill stargazing gaps

  • Mauna Kea Tea Fields are pictured in this promotional photo. (Courtesy/ Hawaii Forest & Trail)

HILO — Big Island tour companies are increasingly learning not to put all their eggs in one basket, as even temporary closures of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Maunakea summit play havoc with tour groups’ plans.

“Our tour companies are being very creative, which is very good for us as a destination,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau. “All these things are kind of bubbling up as new opportunities in the way we’re marketing the island. There’s a little bit more in our deck of cards instead of relying on the same old, same old all the time.”

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The latest entry into the tourism repertoire began Wednesday as Hawaii Forest &Trail took its inaugural group on a “Flavors of Hawaii” tour, an all-day farm and foodie adventure that showcases Hawaii specialty crops and the origins of Hawaii cuisine.

The Flavors of Hawaii culinary adventure includes tours of the Waimea Farmers Market, Kahi Ola Mau farm, home of the Honokaa Chocolate Co., Mauna Kea Tea fields, Honopua Farm and includes tastings and lunch, culminating with a three-course meal and glass of wine at Pueo’s Osteria in Waikoloa Village. Prices start at $275 a person.

Jason Cohn, vice president of marketing for Hawaii Forest &Trail, one of eight companies licensed to take tour groups to Maunakea’s summit, said planning for the new tour began a year ago, well before the current Maunakea access road closure.

“I’m really excited,” Cohn said. “Hawaii does not get enough credit for the rich culinary tradition that we have. Through our culinary history, we can really tell the story of how people, plants and animals have migrated to Hawaii.”

Like other tour companies that rely on Maunakea sunset and stargazing and informational excursions, Hawaii Forest and Trail has found the road closure, now in its third week, hitting profits, resulting in a scaling back of employees’ hours. Cohn said no employees have been laid off at his company, although some have had their hours reduced and may apply for partial unemployment compensation.

Doug Arnott, whose Arnott’s Lodge &Hiking Adventures is also one of eight companies with permits to conduct Maunakea tours, said Thursday his company has been using its vans to shuttle one load a day of protesters, who call themselves “kiai,” or protectors, up to the summit of Maunakea, as allowed under the agreement with the state. He’s doing it on his own dime, he said.

“We may as well be part of the solution instead of part of the problem,” Arnott said. “We felt we might be useful and help out.”

Meanwhile, to generate an income, Arnott continues to rely on his lodging business and tours for cruise ship visitors. He said he’s had to cut hours for five employees, and he imagines it’s much worse for the sole-Maunakea tour companies.

He said other tour companies are finding alternate places for their sunset and stargazing tours, such as Waikii. Still, he said, tourism is taking a hit, especially among Japanese visitors to West Hawaii, who want to visit the nation’s telescopes.

Several tour companies told West Hawaii Today last month they were taking visitors to other interesting sites for stargazing and checking out the island’s natural beauty, although they’ve had to cut back their tours. None returned calls for updates by press-time Friday.

Some have ferried groups to the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, formerly known as Mauna Kea park, where the stargazing is good, although not as good as it is in the crisp, clear air farther up the mountain.

In addition to taking visitors to waterfalls, bird-watching, zip-lines, volcanoes and hikes, Hawaii Forest &Trail has struck up an agreement with the Girl Scouts to bring stargazers to Camp Kilohana, which is at 6,000 feet elevation on Maunakea.

Gov. David Ige’s office hopes to arrive at a solution soon.

“The state intended to keep Maunakea Access Road open as much as possible during construction, with closures only during the time heavy equipment was actually being moved to the summit,” Ige’s communications director, Cindy McMillan, said Friday in an email response. “The protest blocking the road has created conditions that are unsafe for tour companies and others to conduct business as usual. The governor is continuing to focus on safety as he works with multiple people and groups to resolve the situation.”

Birch said as other islands start scaling back their tourism pitches for fear of saturation, there’s still room to attract visitors, and the money they bring, to the Big Island, provided it’s balanced so popular destinations don’t get overcome. It’s a Catch-22, he said, trying to give visitors new experiences in addition to the volcano or the mountain without overburdening specific areas such as Waipio Valley and Upolu Point.

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“We’re still aggressive, still looking at attracting more visitors but we’re being smart about it,” Birch said.

Visitor industry officials, along with representatives from tour companies, cultural partners and resorts, plan a San Diego to Seattle bus trip in September, spreading the tourism message that’s unique to the Big Island.

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