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East Maui feels the pressure as tourism returns

Hana Highway clogged, spots like Twin Falls are overwhelmed

Twin Falls staffers Kaua Franco-Harold (foreground) and Piilani Luuloa-Kealaiki direct traffic around the Hana Highway attraction’s full parking lot Friday morning. “Sometimes it’s a good day and sometimes it’s a bad day, it depends on the tourists,” Franco-Harold said. “They like to stop to ask questions, but people come flying around that corner. I almost got hit once because they tried to to pull in when I said there was no parking.” East Maui residents and popular spots like Twin Falls have been inundated with traffic and tourists as the summer travel season ramps up. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Local residents and businesses are seeking help with crowd and traffic control in East Maui as tourism ramps back up again after more than a year of quiet beaches and light traffic on Hana Highway amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

East Maui is once again swarming with drivers, beachgoers and hikers as they tour the area’s most popular attractions, which in recent weeks has caused concern among community members.

“Since the sudden return of tourism, we have been receiving complaints from local residents about problems along Hana Highway,” Maui County Deputy Director Josiah Nishita said during a news conference on Thursday. “Some tourists have been parking illegally or stopping in the middle of the road to take photos or waterfalls or other sights on their way to Hana.”

Some community members have been advocating for better enforcement of parking and trespassing laws and a reduction in the number of vehicles on the roadway.

Others said that they would like to see more effective ways to educate visitors on the “do’s and don’ts” of traveling around the island and respecting Hawaiian culture before they even hit the road to Hana.

Visitors to Twin Falls make their way across the parking lot Friday. In the background along Hana Highway is the overflow lot, which has been taken out of service while being used as a staging area for a bridge repair project 2 miles down the road. The limited parking has made an already crowded situation even more difficult. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Having more communication and education without “being so hostile” would help improve both residents’ well-being and the visitor experience, said Claire Carroll, noting that drivers have been aggressive lately on the highway.

“Everyone was stuck in a pandemic and there’s just a lot of people just ready to get out,” said Carroll, executive board member and former president of the Hana Community Association. “They’ve been waiting to go on vacation.”

While there are many waterfalls along the way that prompt people to make a pit stop, crowds also gather at places like Twin Falls, Bamboo Forest, Venus Pools, Seven Sacred Pools or Waianapanapa State Park, where officials recently launched a reservation system in hopes of controlling the crowds.

Vehicle reservations last month for Waianapanapa, a location famous for its black sand beach, were 10,561, while 6,935 vehicles were turned away for not having a reservation to enter the park. There were 824 residents who entered the park in May.

“The reservation system has been put in place to avoid the overcrowding and parking issues,” said Maui District Superintendent Larry Pacheco of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks. “I feel that the park visitor’s experience both for residents and nonresidents have improved and also hopefully lessens the impact on the resources in the area since the reservation system has been implemented.”

Now that COVID-19 restrictions are slowly loosening and more visitors are coming to Maui, Pacheco said that there could be an increase in the “desire to visit Waianapanapa” next month.

However, there is a cap on the number of reservations that can be made per day and reservations must be made 14 days in advance for all vehicles and walk-in entry.

“We have current park rules in place for regulating activities within the state park, but our rules do not apply to the areas outside of our park boundaries,” Pacheco said in response to traffic concerns on Hana Highway. “As always, the DLNR’s primary role is the protection of our natural and cultural resources, therefore we would hope that everyone, both residents and visitors, do their best to also help and take on this responsibility.”

Carroll added that Hana residents have appreciated and benefited from the reservation system.

“I’ve personally gone down there and spoken to the employees and spoke with several community members. We know there is a voice of some individuals that who think that it’s not working, but it seems to be working,” she said. “The biggest difference with Waianapanapa is that the local residents can more enjoy the area.”

Visitor numbers to Twin Falls also seem to be approaching pre-pandemic levels, at least 1,500 people per day during the summer months. Between 120 to 150 vehicles can fill the two gravel lots outside the falls and line the shoulders of the highway.

Lately, operations have felt “busier than normal,” Manager Ramana Sawyer said Friday.

“Pre-pandemic levels of visitors definitely put Twin Falls at over capacity for cars and foot traffic in the valley,” Sawyer said. “Cars parking along the shoulder of Hana Highway create hazards and unsafe conditions for motorists as well as pedestrians walking along the highway to reach the Twin Falls entrance.”

In March, when spring break was in full swing, Sawyer said they tried to close down access to Twin Falls completely because they were “overwhelmed by visitors.”

“That only lasted a day and a half as we realized the closure was affecting our neighbors’ properties as visitors were climbing fences and gates to get into Twin Falls,” he said. “We also realized that we play a significant part in filtering out the quantity of vehicles driving the road to Hana at any given time and by closing access to Twin Falls, we were passing the overcrowding problem down the road to other sites on the Hana Highway.”

There’s also construction being done to the bridge at Mile Marker 3, limiting parking availability to the small gravel lot fronting the farm stand.

“The challenge of having parking spaces reduced from a daily average of 100 to just 43 has not been easy,” said Sawyer, a Haiku resident. “We feel the brunt of angry visitors who can’t find parking daily and our employees have dealt with very challenging situations as entitlement — many visitors think we are a public park, not a privately run farm allowing public access — as well as frustration and anger turns to verbal assaults on them when told that we do not have parking available.”

In the meantime, they are working on a parking management plan to reduce or eliminate vehicle impact on Hana Highway by setting a cap on the number of parking spaces available for people to access Twin Falls. This will also help to mitigate the overcrowding issues experienced in recent years, he said.

Officials have also been trying to control traffic and illegal parking. On Thursday, Maui County partnered with the state Department of Transportation to install “no parking” signs at locations alongside Hana Highway, starting at the Waikamoi Stream Bridge at Mile Marker 10.

The signs warn of a $35 citation for illegal parking and a $200 parking violation surcharge “to reduce the temptation for drivers to illegally park on Hana Highway,” according to the DOT.

Illegal parking along the only road to Hana has caused safety concerns, Nishita said, and the Maui Police Department has issued a dozen citations in the past month.

About 10 signs will be installed at each location, he added. The following locations have increased fines: Waikamoi Stream Bridge, Twin Falls, Bamboo Forest, Ching’s Pond, Waikani Bridge, Pua’a Ka’a Park and Hanawi Bridge.

“Even though the road to Hana has become a visitor attraction, our local residents rely on this road for getting necessary supplies, driving to medical appointments and much more,” he said. “We do ask our visitors to respect our community and culture, especially our isolated and rural communities that have limited access to health care, and other supplies and necessities out there.”

After the “no parking” signs with the increased fines have been installed, DOT will install “slower traffic pull over” signs in the area near Ching’s Pond between Mile Markers 17 and 18, the department said.

DOT said that these signs will be installed to reduce “dangerous maneuvers and situations resulting in aggressive driving.”

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino thanked the department for discouraging illegal parking on Hana Highway and said he hopes that increased enforcement will help with traffic and crowd control.

“These measures remind anyone who visits Hana to respect our community and culture,” Victorino said in a news release Thursday. “Risking the health and safety of others for a photo op is simply unacceptable.”

However, some say adding signage, issuing tickets or creating more reservation systems like the ones at Waianapanapa or Haleakala National Park, which saw 79,649 visitors in May, are only temporary fixes to an overarching problem.

“The Hana community has voiced their concerns for years and we are encouraged to hear the start of new implementations in regards to the community’s concerns,” said Charles Ahuna, majority owner of Hana and Beyond. “I hope that we can continue to build on these efforts and eventually build a manageable and sustainable system.”

However, the way the highway is situated now, “no amount of tickets, signs or the like will solve the issues on the road to Hana,” Ahuna said.

“It’s simply impossible to manage hundreds of cars a day over the entire area that is considered East Maui,” he added.

Ahuna has been a driver guide for different Hana tour companies for more than 15 years, including some that have fallen by the wayside during the pandemic and others that are “barely hanging on today.”

Operating a business amid the pandemic “has been a struggle to say the least” due to ongoing health and safety protocols as well as bringing back employees.

“We are managing to get through the pandemic and we remain hopeful that we can continue to operate and exist as we move forward,” he said.

For years, Ahuna said that he’s always encouraged carpooling or that visitors take tour vans to Hana as a way of reducing the number of vehicles on the roadway, as well as ensuring that the group does not park illegally or trespass onto private property.

Hana and Beyond also suggested education through car rental companies or at hotels prior to embarking on a day trip through East Maui.

The silver lining is that the increase in traffic has been good for local businesses in Hana, Carroll said. Although some people are still waiting to return to their previous jobs, others have been called back or have found new employment opportunities as the impacts of COVID-19 subside.

“We need visitors, and that’s obviously how people are going back to work and generating the economy here in Hana, we’re so far away,” she said. “I’m happy for those who have been so excited to get called back because it ended a lot of the stress.”

Organizations like the Hana Highway Regulation, East Maui Ready and Maui Visitors Bureau have also worked together to create a “Road to Hana Code of Conduct” to promote safety on the highway for all drivers while also respecting the land and culture.

Some key points include driving “slowly and carefully” and using pullouts to let faster drivers pass, looking ahead for one-lane bridges and tight areas and yielding for oncoming traffic, and avoiding stopping on bridges or parking where traffic may be blocked or where “no parking” signs are posted.

East Maui weather and road conditions can also pose dangerous conditions on the highway, on trails or at beaches, including flash floods, mudslides, high surf and rip tides; visitors are encouraged to adhere to any county alerts.

“I think it is all about finding the balance of what is the right number of cars and visitors on any given day and at any given time to support and not stress the infrastructure available (such as) bathrooms, trails, roads, and allow the residents of the areas on the Hana Highway to not feel as though they are being trampled by overcrowding,” Sawyer said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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