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A sea change on Oahu

From Hanauma Bay to Waikiki, Hawaii is spending millions to polish the gems of the island's south shore.

September 28, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Honolulu — THE editorial cartoon pictures two tourists being ejected from Hanauma Bay State Beach Park, one of Hawaii's most beautiful strips of sea and sand. One tourist dejectedly tells the other, "I didn't know about the test."

The illustration plays off a year-old get-tough policy that requires all visitors to watch a nine-minute educational film before they're allowed on the beach. There isn't actually a test, but woe to the tourist who ignores the film and feeds the fish, drops cigarette butts on the beach or walks on the delicate reef.

"This is a nature preserve," park manager Alan Hong said when I visited in August. "People who are looking for a beach where they can play Frisbee are going to find this isn't it."

There's change afoot on Oahu, from the stunning reefs of Hanauma Bay to the strip of tourist hotels lining Waikiki Beach, where, it's hoped, an infusion of $1 billion will revitalize an area that was showing its age.

At Hanauma Bay, about 10 miles southeast of Waikiki, change has meant a cleaner beach and clearer water. Empty plastic bread bags no longer litter the area -- jetsam once left by tourists who were handed loaves of bread to feed the fish as they exited tour buses.

The mandatory film is one several measures to protect Hanauma Bay -- often listed as one of America's top 10 beaches -- from visitors who were loving it to death. Tour buses no longer can enter; they're allowed to stop on a bluff overlooking the park so passengers can take a quick look from afar. And only 300 cars are allowed into the parking lot each morning, so if you don't arrive before 8 or 8:30 a.m. on busy summer days, you may be out of luck. If you do find a place to park, you'll be charged $5 to visit the beach. (Kids and local residents are admitted free.)

I hadn't been to Hanauma for a dozen years or more. On my last visit, people were parked helter-skelter, but this time, Times photographer Gail Fisher and I arrived at 8:10 a.m. and parked in an orderly fashion in one of the last spaces in the lot. The gate closed shortly thereafter.

"We used to get 3 million visitors a year on the beach," Hong told us. "We've reduced that to 1 million. People look at it as very poor customer service, but we do what we have to do to protect this resource."

We watched the film -- which explains that the reef is a fragile, living thing -- and saw beautiful footage of the creatures we would encounter if we went snorkeling: yellow tangs, black-and-white Moorish idols, bright green sea turtles. "Look but don't touch," the film cautioned viewers. Cleared as beachgoers, we were allowed to ride a tram down to the crescent-shaped bay in the crater of a long-extinct volcano. The water was a brilliant turquoise, with a labyrinth of coral fingers stretching from the reef almost to the shoreline.

Visitors could rent snorkel gear for $6, but there were no food stands on the beach. "Cuts down on trash," Hong said. "It's in keeping with the way a nature preserve should look."

Changing its image

While Hanauma Bay is improving its appearance by limiting visitors, Waikiki is improving itself in hopes of increasing visitors. They'll find new upscale shopping centers and broad landscaped walkways. Aging hotels have been renovated, and the shrinking beach is being widened.

"We needed to change the perception of Waikiki as a mature, aging resort area," said Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Assn.

"There's no denying the product was slipping. Everybody knew it, but no one did anything about it. Honolulu was a cash cow. All the business community had to do was manage the cash registers. There were decades of neglect."

The bubble burst when the Japanese economy crashed in the 1990s.

"We were being held afloat by Japanese tourism," Egged said. "People realized we needed to do something so we wouldn't be so dependent."

Other changes weren't helping. New resorts were being built on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, and airlines were increasingly bypassing Oahu and delivering visitors directly to the other islands.

A revitalization project, which got underway in the late '90s, gained momentum after Sept. 11. Nearly half a billion dollars has been pumped into Waikiki. Another half a billion has been committed to future projects.

The investment shows. As we walked along Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main thoroughfare, we saw that the street had been narrowed to create wide, inviting pedestrian walkways. Sidewalks were newly tiled, flowers spilled out of lamppost baskets and waterfalls splashed. Members of the Aloha Patrol, a security and information service, were standing watch and answering tourists' questions.

At Kalakaua Avenue and Kalaimoku Street, we saw a graceful new three-story shopping complex, 2100 Kalakaua, housing Tiffany, Gucci, Chanel and other top-end retailers. The $140-million project replaced a jumble of faded souvenir storefronts. A 7-foot bronze sculpture of a female Hawaiian storyteller held court under a canopy of trees.

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