Haleakala National Park sets trimmed list of tour companies

Four vehicle-based firms awarded 10-year contracts, cutting out more than a dozen permitted this year

A silversword stands tall in Haleakala National Park in June. The park will see a major reduction in the number of companies allowed to operate road-based tours in the park in 2018. Polynesian Adventure Tours, Skyline Eco Adventures, Valley Isle Excursions and Haleakala Bike Co., doing business as Haleakala EcoTours, have been selected to receive 10-year contracts with the park, officials announced Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A silversword stands tall in Haleakala National Park in June. The park will see a major reduction in the number of companies allowed to operate road-based tours in the park in 2018. Polynesian Adventure Tours, Skyline Eco Adventures, Valley Isle Excursions and Haleakala Bike Co., doing business as Haleakala EcoTours, have been selected to receive 10-year contracts with the park, officials announced Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Starting in 2018, Haleakala EcoTours, Polynesian Adventure Tours, Skyline Eco Adventures and Valley Isle Excursions will be the only companies allowed to bring vehicle-based tours into Haleakala National Park, park officials announced Tuesday.

The four tour companies have been awarded 10-year contracts to operate in the park. The move will reduce the number of vehicle-based tours from 16 to four as a way “to improve the visitor experience . . . while better protecting natural and cultural resources.”

“We’re excited about it,” Skyline Eco Adventures President Danny Boren said Tuesday. “This is a great opportunity for us to expand the tours that we offer and really be able to get involved with showing visitors one of the most remarkable places in all of Hawaii.”

In 2012, Haleakala National Park officials drafted a plan that proposed fewer tour companies in hopes of lessening visitor impact on the crater’s environment. The National Park Service approved the plan in 2013.

Dropping “to four road-based tour companies allows us to have a longer-term relationship with these companies and provide better protection of our resources,” said Polly Angelakis, the park’s chief of interpretation and education. “Traffic control was a concern.”

A bus from Haleakala Bike Co., doing business as Haleakala EcoTours, sits parked in Haleakala National Park. Haleakala EcoTours photo

A bus from Haleakala Bike Co., doing business as Haleakala EcoTours, sits parked in Haleakala National Park. Haleakala EcoTours photo

More than 1.2 million people visited Haleakala National Park in 2015. Of those, more than 217,000 used commercial services. This year, 16 companies are permitted for vehicle-based tours, four are permitted for astronomy tours and three are permitted for hiking tours.

Haleakala National Park employees were not involved in the selection, Angelakis said. The companies were recommended by an evaluation panel out of the Park Service’s Pacific West Regional Office and chosen by the regional director.

Companies were selected based on their experience and background, as well as ability to protect park resources and provide “necessary and appropriate visitor services at reasonable rates,” Angelakis said.

“We also feel humbled with being entrusted as one of the few operators to share the wonders of Haleakala with the public,” said Sandi Weir, president of Polynesian Adventure Tours. “It’s an opportunity that carries with it a responsibility to provide more than just guided sightseeing tours, but to help guests understand the importance of conservation and respect for the aina.”

All but Skyline Eco Adventures have operated in the park before, though Skyline has been running tours on the mountain for 15 years, Boren said. It’ll be a major change for the company, which runs zip-line tours Upcountry and has been partnering with Maui Downhill on zip-line and bike tours.

“We decided if we’re going to do any kind of bike tours, which won’t be our primary type of tour, we’re going to keep the bikes out of all the residential areas, because we don’t feel like that’s good for the Upcountry community,” Boren said.

Skyline’s main focus in Haleakala will be cultural and environmental tours. The company plans to hire more employees and buy an entirely new fleet of vehicles to take visitors on sunrise and sunset tours in the park.

When the bidding process began, some smaller companies were concerned that losing their Haleakala permits could potentially put them out of business. Some worried that the biggest companies would have an advantage in applying for contracts.

“We are concerned about the other companies,” said Raymond Hutaff, vice president of Valley Isle Excursions. “We believe they are great people who have always shared the park values. We know most of them and consider them friends.”

However, Hutaff said he understood why the park wanted to reduce the number of tours.

“We do believe that having only four will ensure that we all tell the correct stories to honor and respect the Hawaiian culture, and the cultural resources for all Maui,” Hutaff said.

The selected businesses vary in size. Polynesian Adventure Tours is a statewide company with 60 employees on Maui, while Skyline Eco Adventures is also statewide and has about 75 on Maui. Valley Isle Excursions is a smaller, Wailuku-based company with around 30 employees, and the Haiku-based Haleakala Bike Co., doing business as Haleakala EcoTours, employs 15.

EcoTours Vice President Lewis Upfold said the company accepted the contract “with great gratitude.”

“As stewards of this beautiful island of Maui, and bestowed with this great opportunity to be partners with Haleakala National Park, we feel obligated with the responsibility of providing the most factual and accurate information about Haleakala, Maui and Hawaii that we can,” Upfold said in a statement Tuesday.

Each company will have to pay a franchise fee to enter the park, though Angelakis said her office hadn’t been given that number. The prospectus that the Park Service released last year outlining requirements for businesses said that entrance fees were expected to increase. Vehicles that hold eight to 25 passengers pay a $45 entrance fee. New rates under concession contracts would range from $52 to $200, depending on the vehicle’s capacity, in addition to a minimum franchise fee of $126 per trip.

Businesses were supposed to propose a franchise fee in their applications, Angelakis said.

According to the prospectus, the Park Service can terminate contracts “at any time to protect area visitors . . . and preserve area resources.” After 10 years, the bidding process will reopen.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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