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.
``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.
Many observers point to the Molokai Ranch as the major hope for turning things around. Founded in 1850 by a German immigrant, the ranch became a sugar-cane plantation in 1898 for 80 years. It was purchased in 1988 by a New Zealand-based company, Brierley Investments Ltd. Because the property encompasses a third of the island, most say the future of the island depends on decisions made by the ranch's owners.
``Molokai is struggling and needs direction,'' says Russ Lynch, who has written about Hawaiian economic issues for the Honolulu Star Bulletin for 27 years. ``The ranch is the island's biggest player and is trying to give the island the economy it needs without treading too much on sensitive toes.''
A long-term plan outlined by Molokai Ranch owners includes increasing agricultural profits by developing dairy farming and beef operations that maintain scenic open pastures, while producing local jobs. Corn, coffee, and vegetables also will be grown on the ranch.
To try to integrate land use for industry, agriculture, and visitor alike, Molokai Ranch is trying to link its tourist venues with ``The Great Molokai Ranch Trail.'' The idea is to provide a wilderness experience that includes interpretive tours as well as historical and archaeological sites scattered among several base camps.
In the area of land administration, ranch owners are trying to make Molokai an attractive outpost for ``lone eagles,'' city-weary office workers who who move lock, stock, and fax machine to rural areas and commute to work via computer. The plan also entails revitalizing the commercial core of rural towns on Molokai by upgrading and expanding housing. A small industrial park is planned to offer opportunities for small businesses to expand.
``Our vision is colored by the realization that the people, culture, and environment that are already here are far stronger than anyone could create,'' says Jim Mozley, CEO of Molokai Ranch. In September, the ranch announced it would build 300 low-cost homes in Mauna Loa Village, a rural town on the west side. And on Oct. 27, they announced plans for the 200-acre dairy to break ground by mid-1995.
Some locals bristle
The moves are not without controversy. A small, vocal group known as the Mauna Loa Action Community Koalition (MACK), has strenuously objected to the demolishing of 45 homes.
``Our homes are being bulldozed, and we are being offered accommodations we can't afford,'' says Steven Reiff, a founding member of MACK, who has lived in the town for 18 years. He says 80 percent of the islanders oppose the Ranch's plans. He has organized several public demonstrations against the ranch's actions.
``We feel that the ranch should be doing more things to make their land accessible to hunting and fishing by those of Hawaiian blood,'' Mr. Reiff says.
But the village redevelopment plan was approved by unanimous vote of the Maui County Council, the island's main governing body.
``You can feel the frustration of native Hawaiian locals who feel they are being stepped on by a foreign-owned company,'' says Mr. Lynch, the journalist. ``But in the long term, [islanders] will benefit by the policies they now oppose.''
According to Mr. Hemmings, a candidate for lieutenant governor, ``the ranch is doing everything that can and should happen in Hawaii. That is: Bring international investment from the Pacific basin to an economically depressed island but without the rampant development that has suffocated other islands.''