HILO — Although the Maunakea Access Road has reopened, some tour companies have decided to wait and see what happens this week before resuming summit tours.
Last week, Gov. David Ige reopened the access road to the public, allowing ordinary citizens to ascend Maunakea for the first time in more than five months. Later that day, however, the protesters camped on the access road were given a deadline by a state official: completely clear the access road by Thursday, Dec. 26.
The consequences of failing to leave the access road are unclear, but some protesters — who are opposing the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea — believe the state will use force to remove noncomplying people on Thursday.
“We’re just keeping an eye on whatever happens on the 26th,” said Jason Cohn, vice president of marketing for Hawaii Forest &Trail, a tour company that, before the access road closed, regularly took tour groups to Maunakea’s summit.
Siobhan Stewart, a receptionist for tour company Arnott’s Lodge and Hiking Adventure, said Arnott’s has sent some tour groups to the summit on Sunday and Monday, but will wait to see the results Thursday before committing to regular tours.
If nothing drastically changes on Thursday, Cohn said Hawaii Forest &Trail is tentatively ready to resume summit tours on Friday.
If the road remains open, tour groups can be among the first to experience the fruits of a million-dollar renovation of the University of Hawaii-operated Maunakea Visitor Information Station, which is scheduled to reopen on Saturday.
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the VIS will reopen seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., an improvement on its operating hours before the closure, which were 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
UH’s Office of Maunakea Management spent $1.53 million to improve the VIS, located more than 9,000 feet above sea level, beginning in January. That project, which added a new parking lot and modified traffic circulation around the station, began in January and was completed in July, but it could not be experienced by any visitors after the access road closed.
Meisenzahl said he believes the VIS will reopen with a full contingent of eight employees.
Should the road continue to be open with no complications, it will be a boon for tour companies that have struggled with the closure of one of their most popular attractions.
Although Cohn said in August that his company hadn’t had to lay off any employees, he said on Monday that some employees have since left the company after a reduction in hours, and that Hawaii Forest &Trail has not been able to fill their positions.
“We’re very excited that the state has decided to restore access to everyone,” Cohn said. “Our staff went to the summit (Monday), including myself, and it was a really powerful day to be back up there and reflect on everything that’s happened. For our summit guides, it’s been difficult for them financially, but some of them told me they also just miss being up there.
“We hope a large police force doesn’t return on Thursday. It was very calm up there (Monday). I’m hoping that keeps up.”
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