Molokai Aims To Lure Tourists Without Trappings
Underdeveloped island wants to stay that way - while growing as a destination for nature-lovers
AS our teeny plane buzzed just yards away from the world's highest sheer sea cliffs (3,600 feet), all six passengers lurched nose-to-window for optimal ogling. Waterfalls, black-sand beaches, volcano craters, and hidden valleys danced in shade and sun below.Skip to next paragraph
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``This is among the most inaccessible terrain on the globe,'' says our host, Fred Hemmings, pointing to Wailau Valley, a cavernous fold of jungle on Molokai's northeast side.
But our aerial view of this fifth-largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago highlights something equally spectacular: Not visible below were high-rises, traffic, movie theaters, night clubs, shopping centers, or fast-food restaurants. None of the above could be found on this 36-by-10-mile trapezoid of tropical paradise.
Whereas other Hawaiian islands have distinguished themselves in recent years with $500 million-plus mega-resorts - calculated tourist-comfort oases that include hotels, spas, pools, restaurants, shops, and golf courses - Molokai is embracing the future of the state's largest industry by diversifying into everything but. That means promoting ways to enjoy natural beauty -
streams, beaches, cliffs, plants, animals - with a bare minimum of development: trails for hiking and bareback riding; parks and preserves for bird- and animal-watching; camping areas from mountain to beach; land sports (running to biking) and water sports (canoeing to windsurfing).
``We are banking on ecotourism and cultural tourism as the wave of the future for Hawaii's visitor industry,'' says Connie Wright, director of marketing for the Molokai Visitors Association. The island's slogan is ``Molokai - the most Hawaiian island.''
Globally, so-called adventure tourism is the wave of the future, tourism officials say, with money spent on participation-related vacations predicted to double in the 1990s. On Molokai, which now attracts only 100,000 of the state's 7 million annual tourist visits, the decision is based on culture, lifestyle, and self-preservation. Molokai has only 7,000 residents, half of them native Hawaiians with little income. It is the least-populated island in the state.
``By keeping Molokai unique, we will have a really good shot at attracting people in the future,'' says DeGray Vanderbilt, Chamber of Commerce board member. ``But if we were to homogenize like the rest of the islands and roll over to indiscriminate development, we would be the big loser.''
Hawaii has been overbuilt, analysts say. They note that two resorts, one on the Big Island of Hawaii and one on Kauai, have recently been sold for one-quarter of their original investment.
Partly because of this, tourism, but on Molokai's own terms, has recently grown in acceptance as a strategy here. The idea was first introduced in 1983 when community and business leaders united to consider the island's future with the phasing-out of pineapple cultivation by Dole and Del Monte.
Finding the right balance of tourism with Molokai's other main industry, agriculture, has been the subject of hot debate in recent years. There are currently accommodations for only about 600 visitors, spread among three hotels, five condo-resort projects, and numerous bed-and-breakfasts. Tourist visits slipped nearly 22 percent last year, after a 19 percent decline the year before. Accommodations have been only about half full.