Locals-only days, hot spot stewards aim to manage East Maui tourism

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Twin Falls operators, and visitor agencies are seeking different solutions along Road to Hana

Twins Falls crew members wave drivers on Hana Highway to continue past their full parking lot in 2021. Last week, operators at the popular waterfall hike did a test run of a “locals only” day — one of the solutions the East Maui community has tried to manage tourism along the Road to Hana. Now, local tourism agencies are considering a pilot program that would put stewards at hot spots to monitor the area, educate visitors and collect data. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Twin Falls, one of the busier pit stops along Hana Highway, was much calmer last week as farm operators piloted a locals-only day to alleviate some of the overcrowding issues, parking concerns and environmental impacts in the valley.

As drivers and passengers entered the parking lot of Twin Falls from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on April 8, they were asked to show proof of Hawaii identification.

“It went really well, it was a pretty amazing day out here,” Aina Harold, who has worked at the hot spot for over 15 years, said Tuesday morning. “Everybody that came here, majority of them said they hadn’t come here in years and they had avoided the area because it was just overcrowded, so that was one of the comments we heard the most.”

An increasingly popular natural attraction along the Road to Hana, drawing between 250 to 400 cars per day depending on the season, the waterfalls, ponds and trails at the privately owned farm are often jampacked with individuals, families and tour groups.

For the first-ever local event, only about 150 vehicles total entered Twin Falls for the entire day.

A handful of Maui residents play and swim at a pond within Twin Falls that usually attracts crowds of visitors. Nonprofit Friends of Twin Falls organized a “locals only” day on April 8 in hopes of trying to balance resident enjoyment with increasing numbers of visitors in East Maui. JAY FRANEY photo

Harold said it wasn’t too challenging communicating with visitors about the temporary Hawaii ID requirement. There was a hired off-duty police officer on-site to help facilitate parking and the event was also posted on visitor webpages, like Road to Hana and Maui Bound, to notify tourists ahead of time.

Maile Davis of the nonprofit Friends of Twin Falls said Wednesday that “most tourists were very understanding and ventured to the next stop on the road.”

“Of course, we had some disappointed people but truly, we felt it was supported for the most part,” Davis added. “We want to make it clear we are not against tourism or inviting visitors to enjoy our area, we are simply trying to find that elusive balance for our residents to also enjoy Maui’s natural resources as well in a meaningful way.”

Throughout the day, staff heard about how local families hadn’t been to Twin Falls since they were kids or in many years because of growing overtourism inside the valley and the overcrowded parking areas that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic once overflowed onto Hana Highway.

“Many rejoiced in having the falls practically to themselves, or simply came out to hike and connect with nature,” Davis said. “One nice thing we saw over and over again was locals seeing friends they haven’t seen for a while, by chance, that day. The parking lots were full at times, but it still was seemingly empty on the trails.”

After the pandemic, farm operators decided to cap the number of vehicles in the parking lot at any given time to 80 — 55 paid spots for visitors and 25 free spots dedicated to residents only — in an attempt to manage crowds in a safe manner and maintain space for locals.

Managing residents and visitors on the property gives staff more opportunities to educate people, leaves them better equipped to handle emergency situations and offers more control over mitigating the negative impacts on the environment.

“By managing it, we are making an impact here in the valley in terms of how many visitors are at the waterfall, we have more time to explain to them about bug spray and sunscreen because we are working with them in a more controlled environment in our parking areas,” Harold said. “The impact that was happening in the valley, it was getting overrun. … As a whole, it’s really, really worked for us.”

In the future, Davis said they hope to have more locals-only days at Twin Falls as well as potential holiday events. Dates will be posted on the nonprofit’s Facebook page.

“There are a lot of logistics that go into daily operations in any business, and we are working on fine tuning our future offerings,” she said. “The overall feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, so we feel the community want is definitely there, and we’re thankful to Wailele Farms for considering to hold future events.”

Operators at Twin Falls know it’s much easier to test out and implement mitigation strategies on private property, though.

“We notice that the State and County are also in the process of figuring out their own carrying capacity, and being a private business we are attempting to find that balance as well,” Davis said. “We imagine the benefits will be long lasting as we move forward, and look forward to hearing from the community as well.”

Unlike Twin Falls, however, many of the popular stops along the Road to Hana are unmonitored, making it more difficult to limit who comes and goes most days.

Solutions that the state has tried out in East Maui include a reservation system at Waianapanapa State Park and “no parking” signs with sizable fines in areas where vehicles can cause issues with safety and overcrowding.

Now, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau are considering a system that would station two stewards each at five hot spots in East Maui — Nailiilihaele Stream, also known as Bamboo Forest; Waikamoi Falls; Kaihalulu, also known as Red Sand Beach; Waioka, also known as Venus Pools; and Honolewa, also known as South Wailua Falls — as part of an East Maui Tourism Management Pilot Program.

The stewards would be hired through an interview and application process and would provide orientations about safety, access, parking, culture and community-supported tourism activities in the area. They would also be gathering data.

Stewards would be supervised by site coordinators, which could be either an individual, business or nonprofit. Site coordinators must be based somewhat close to the hot spot being served, and they can oversee more than one hot spot.

There would be about 20 stewards needed in order to cover each of the shifts, which span seven days a week.

The visitors bureau is soliciting proposals from East Maui-based nonprofits to execute the pilot program.

The request for proposals must come from eligible nonprofits based within the Koolau, Hana, Kipahulu, Kaupo and Kahikinui areas, said Meagan DeGaia, the bureau’s Maui destination manager, during a Zoom meeting Tuesday.

DeGaia said that the purpose of the East Maui Tourism Management Pilot Program is to implement responsible tourism marketing, explore the capacity limits at hot spots through science-based data and continue to educate the community and visitors, which in this case are described as anyone who is not a resident of East Maui, she said.

Data includes, but is not limited to, carrying capacity, visitor behavior, traffic, satisfaction levels among residents, illegal tour operators, visitor response and compliance with the management program throughout the year.

East Maui-based nonprofit applicants may submit proposals for all or part of the services. More than one nonprofit applicant may be awarded for all or part of what has been proposed, DeGaia said.

The deadline for applicants to submit proposals to the bureau is 4:30 p.m. May 5. Applicants may review and download the request for proposals at hvcb.org/east-maui-tourism-management-rfp.

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