Tour officials of park plans: Don’t make sense

Officials with two local tour bus companies say that Haleakala National Park’s plans to limit van and minibus tours and to outlaw large motorcoach buses at the summit actually could lead to more vehicles in the park, create traffic congestion and hinder the park’s objective to preserve its resources.

The tour bus restrictions were among the new provisions – not expected to take effect until next year – in Haleakala National Park’s commercial services plan that completed its environmental review in December. Its goals are to provide direction for management of guided commercial services, to care for park resources and to ensure the availability of “high-quality experiences” for all visitors, the plan says.

“It doesn’t make sense, their reasoning. . . . If they do allow motorcoach buses up there, it would limit the amount of cars,” said Cassie Akina-Ancog, general manager of Akina Aloha Tours in Kihei. “They (park officials) talk about impact and safety issues. A lot people driving up that road is not safe.” In particular, she mentioned foreign visitors, as they often come from countries that drive on the left side of the road.

Akina-Ancog said that while her company believes in compliance and safeguarding resources, it also believes in providing access to everyone who follows the rules. Her company goes through an onerous process of keeping up-to-date records and filling out paperwork required by the park, she said.

“I’m glad someone is taking charge of the park. At the same time, there’s two sides to it,” she said.

During a public hearing on the plan, Akina-Ancog said her company proposed having an open reservations system. That would have the advantage of keeping road-based tours within park limits while allowing for competition for reservations among all commercial users, not just a set number of vendors as called for in the plan.

The commercial services plan scales back the number of commercial road-based tours from the 18 companies listed on the park’s website to four companies, officials said.

Percy Higashi, president and chief operating officer at Roberts Hawaii, echoed Akina-Ancog’s views. He said limitations on commercial tours will “negatively impact” visitors’ experiences and worsen congestion in the park.

“Haleakala National Park is a very popular attraction, and the public expects to be able to visit it,” Higashi said in an email. “For many, it’s among the top sites to see when visiting Maui. Limiting commercial tour services could worsen congestion as visitors who do not have the option of taking a tour may choose to drive themselves in multiple passenger cars instead, which could negatively impact roadways and the environment. One minibus transporting 10 couples could potentially be replaced by 10 cars; one motorcoach, by 25 vehicles.”

Commercial downhill bicycle tours will continue to be prohibited within the park, horseback riding tours in Kipahulu will be limited to one provider, and astronomy tours will be limited to four providers. No new commercial activities will be allowed, according to the plan.

All commercial guides will be required to participate in training and be certified to operate in the park. There also will be limits on daily trips each commercial provider can offer.

In December, the National Park Service made a finding of no significant impact for the plan and accompanying environmental assessment. Plans are currently in the works for its implementation.

Howard Forbes, management assistant at Haleakala National Park, said that it will take about 12 to 18 months to work out the permit and bidding structure and requirements for commercial providers. “The first thing we will be doing is making decisions about what we want the services providers to do,” he said.

While public input was taken prior to the plan’s approval and the formal comment period is closed, Forbes said the park remains open to feedback.

“This doesn’t mean that we turn the telephones off. We will continue to talk to people who want to talk to us,” Forbes said.

While some providers were feeling squeezed out of the park, others had expected it, including Phil Feliciano, owner of Cruiser Phil’s Volcano Riders. Cruiser Phil’s was one of the bike tour operators who at one time began its downhill biking experience from the summit. Those tours were banned from the park in 2007, after a series of fatal accidents.

“The writing was on the wall from the get-go that we would never be allowed in there. It was expected,” Feliciano said. “It actually has been a blessing in disguise. No one has a leg up on anybody.”

Since not being allowed to begin the bike tours in the park, Feliciano said, business has been building back and now hardly any customers ask for a bike ride in the park. Rides currently begin outside the national park at about the 6,500 foot elevation, and operators may obtain a permit to drive riders up to see the sunrise before beginning the tours at the lower elevation.

For some, like Hike Maui owner Dan Craig, the new rules mean little change and adaptation.

“It’s good news for us and our guests to continue to do what we have been doing for years,” said Craig, who has been conducting hiking tours at the park for almost 30 years.

Craig said his business would not be impacted by the new rules that call for only one guided trip per day at the park with a maximum of 12 people. Hike Maui normally does one trip a day in the park, but during wet and windy winter weather, such the current conditions, hikes in the crater may be done once a week.

For the tour bus operators, though, the limited access to Haleakala National Park is a major concern.

Currently, Roberts is permitted to operate two minibuses for a sunrise tour. No special permits are required for its Haleakala/Iao Valley/Lahaina tour and for sunset visits, Higashi said.

The company also is allowed to send a motorcoach to the park based on customer counts.

“If motorcoaches are prohibited, we would need at least three minibus permits to accommodate our customers. As a result, we anticipate there will likely be increase demand for permits,” Higashi said.

For Akina Aloha Tours, Akina-Ancog said her company no longer has a sunrise tour permit. It lost that permit – without warning or notice – during the early 2000s when the number of sunrise permits was decreased, she said.

At the time, Akina was not running daily tours to the park and the awarding of the fewer permits was based on the number of tours to the park.

Currently, the company offers charter tours to the summit. The frequency of Akina’s trips to the park depends on the number of customers it gets. If the charter opportunity is lost, it will hurt the company’s business, she said.

“For us to have that taken away from us would not be fair,” Akina-Ancog said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at