“Mālama pono iho a he waiwai nui; ke ola nō ʻia ka puʻuhonua.
Take good care, this is a treasure; it is life, a place of refuge.”
– Kuʻu Home ʻo Keaukaha by Albert Nahale-a
It’s easy to miss Keaukaha. Located on the easternmost end of Hilo Bay ma kai of the Hilo Airport, access to the community is down a narrow two-lane coastal road that dead ends at an area known as King’s Landing.
Thanks to its “out of the way” location, for decades, the community of Keaukaha has been spared the incursion of tourism that has ravaged other wahi pana and communities throughout the pae ʻāina since statehood.
But no more.
Once-quiet Keaukaha, predominantly (but not exclusively) a Hawaiian Homestead community, has seen increasing encroachment of tourism over the past 10-15 years into spaces that have always been a refuge for local people. And it has only gotten worse since the pandemic abated.
“Keaukaha is just being inundated with tourists,” said Onaona Trask. “And traffic has been horrendous, especially for residents.” Trask, a kumu hula and Hawaiian immersion teacher, worked in Keaukaha for more than 25 years until retiring three years ago.
Keaukaha is the major beach access for the entire Hilo area, “especially since Pele took Puna,” Trask said, referring to the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea Volcano.
Undoubtedly, Keaukaha’s beaches are the primary reason for its current troubles. And while its beaches have also drawn more local people from outside of Hilo, the extreme overcrowding in Keaukaha – especially during weekdays – is almost entirely the result of unchecked tourism.
“A block away from Keaukaha homestead is the Port of Hilo, the only port in East Hawaiʻi,” said Louisa “Sasa” Lee. “So all the cargo ships and cruise ships dock there.” Lee believes that its proximity to the port is one of the most significant reasons for overtourism in Keaukaha.
Lee is the operations director at Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo, a public charter Hawaiian immersion school in Keaukaha. She is also a lifelong resident of Keaukaha, although she is quick to point out that she is not Native Hawaiian.
On “ship days” Lee said that anywhere from 400-800 visitors converge on Keaukaha. Those numbers are likely to increase once the state Department of Transportation’s $65 million expansion of Hilo Harbor is completed.
Another likely reason for the increase in visitors is social media and the practice of geotagging – attaching geographic coordinates to photos posted on the internet.
“Tourists are showing up at places you would otherwise only see local people. And sometimes they are remote areas in the back of Leleiwi or King’s Landing and you wonder, ‘wow – how did you even find this spot?’” said Lee who suspects geotagging is the culprit.
One of the most obvious negative impacts of increased tourism in Keaukaha has been traffic. Residents compete daily with tour buses, tour vans and rental cars to get in and out of their community. “Keaukaha is one way in and one way out,” said Lee. “It sometimes takes hours.”
That is especially concerning as Keaukaha sits in a tsunami inundation zone.
Lee also notes that beach parks in Keaukaha are not designed to accommodate a high volume of visitors. Parking is inadequate and exacerbated by tour buses and vans that block or monopolize multiple parking stalls.
Trask likes to take her moʻopuna to the beach on weekdays but says most of the time she struggles to find parking. “Nine out of 10 times – not even at peak times – I cannot find parking,” she said. “On the weekends? Forget it!”
Another concern are the bathroom facilities. “The bathrooms are overflowing,” remarked Lee. “Keaukaha people have PTSD because of [problems with] the sewage plant there. While the county has required residents to hook up to the main sewer line, not all the beach park toilets are hooked up, which means many of them use cesspools. Hundreds of tourists are coming in on private buses, using the bathrooms, and that’s all seeping into the environment.”
Health, safety and access issues posed by overtourism in Keaukaha also impact area students.
Haumāna from numerous schools in Keaukaha and the Hilo area, pre-k to post-high, utilize the coastline and its many loko iʻa (fishponds) for ʻāina-based, hands-on learning experiences integral to their respective curricula.
Keaukaha is famous for its “wai kai” or brackish water ecosystem. Hydrologists have determined that the freshwater that exits at Keaukaha comes from Mauna Kea. “The water along the coastline is very cold,” said Lee. “It’s a really unique ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. It’s that ecosystem that we are focused on exposing our students to.”
But of late, students must compete with tourists for access to sites that the schools have been using for decades. Worse, there are a handful of residents who reside on properties adjacent to these sites who make it challenging for the students. Lee reports that some of these people have even filed complaints and behave as if the students don’t belong in these spaces.
ʻĀinaaloha Ioane was born and raised at King’s Landing. She is the stewardship program project coordinator at the Keliʻi William Ioane Foundation. She has also taught at Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo. Currently, she is a community advocate, working with government officials and the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority (HTA) to find solutions to address overtourism in Keaukaha.
“I think the root of my frustration is that we are appreciating [the ʻāina] in different ways. As a Hawaiian ʻohana we appreciate the spirit of the land, we aloha the ʻāina that feeds us. When we are there (the beaches) we engage with the ocean and the kānaka in the ocean, our living creatures. We’re engaging with the waves, the wind and the elements.
“I think with tourists there is a different engagement, a more extractive engagement. They unload from their buses and stay about 30 minutes, but it’s a constant 30 minutes throughout the day. They file down and take their selfies and leave. That creates congestion. It’s like ‘I’m taking from the place what I need to create my vision of a vacation.’ There’s no real interaction or reciprocation to the space. Reciprocating doesn’t only mean you mālama ʻāina. At its simplest, it is appreciating the space.”
Ioane doesn’t paint with broad strokes noting that some visitors are “in tune” and there to aloha the space, although she believes the majority are not. “It has to do with the marketing message. People have an expectation when they come here [to Hawaiʻi] to do whatever they want. An expectation to extract. I don’t know if they know that’s what they’re doing – but that’s what they’re doing. If this continues, we’ll continue to have friction and frustration. Tourism needs to be redone.”
She said that the community has been informally collecting data for the last four years to understand what is happening in Keaukaha.
“We are trying to develop a mechanism to take this data and give solid recommendations to our county council members,” Ioane said. “At the county council level, I’m telling them that Keaukaha should decide how many are coming in, where they’re going, and what they’re doing when they’re there.”
Ioane envisions a program that specifies how many tourists can come into Keaukaha per day and what locations they can go to – a reservation system such as the ones in use at Hāʻena on Kauaʻi, at Hanauma Bay on Oʻahu, and at Waiʻānapanapa on Maui.
“If we want to make an impact and make a change, we need to understand what we’re really dealing with,” said Ioane. “That was the initiation of the Keaukaha Stewardship Program (a collaborative project to mitigate visitor impacts and protect the area’s natural and cultural resources). The county is funding four local stewards to collect data and HTA is funding the cultural aspects of the program.”
Hawaiʻi County Councilmember Sue Lee Loy represents Keaukaha. She said that she has an ongoing relationship with the community and has been able to share their concerns with county administrators.
“We are working closely with tourism officials on a pilot project to elevate community perspectives and leadership in managing tourism at signficiant sites,” said Lee Loy referencing HTA’s Keaukaha Stewardship Program.
Lee Loy said that while the county parks welcome everyone she notes that “there may be parks that are good candidates for management systems like we’ve seen implemented successfully at state parks that limit the overall number of people” and shared that her office has championed legislation to, among other things, “designate an open space easement for protection in perpetuity of lands in Keaukaha.”
“We have to be imaginative,” said Ioane. “We’re not saying ‘no’ [to tourism], we are saying our island has finite resources, and this is what our island can sustain.”
“We are trying to be proactive about the future of our community,” added Lee. “Climate change is massively going to affect Keaukaha. The work our students are doing along the coastline – checking water quality, identifying native fish and animal species – this makes them more resilient and able to understand their community so they can participate in decision-making for our future. We don’t want to be victims. We want to be part of the solution.”