East Hawaii News

New data reveals 10s of thousands visit 2 Hilo beach parks in single month; residents express concern

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‘Āinaaloha Ioane’s decision to take her three children to Waiuli Beach Park, also known as Richardson Ocean Park, which is located on the Keaukaha coastline in Hilo, is guided by whether she sees a cruise ship docked at the Port of Hilo.

“Do I want to deal with the feeling of bombardment that happens when tourists unload at Waiuli?” asked the 40-year-old resident of the nearby King’s Landing Hawaiian homestead. “I’ve taken my kids to Waiuli before this huge influx of commercial tourism, and the feeling has changed. It doesn’t feel like home.”

The parking lot at Richardson Ocean Park, also known as Waiuli Beach Park, in the Keaukaha area of Hilo on the Big Island was nearly full just before noon on July 11, 2023. (File photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Waiuli, fronted by Kalaniana‘ole Street, and Lehia Beach Park, also known as King’s Landing, just down the street are popular attractions. They’re often packed, especially Waiuli, when cruise ships are in, on holidays and during weekends.

While their popularity is well-known, Ioane and other Keaukaha community members were surprised to learn just how many visitors frequent Waiuli and the number of people overall visiting both parks each month.

It’s in the 10s of thousands at both.

Data collected by the Keaukaha Steward Pilot Program, a project that paid four Keaukaha community stewards to man pop-up tents at both parks for a total of 20 hours throughout four days a week during a period of six months last year, wrapped up at the end of December. One of the main tasks for stewards was collecting visitor numbers.


Data shows that an estimated more than 22,000 people visit Waiuli — which encompasses just 5 acres — each month. In December alone, visitation was gauged at nearly 24,000 people.

That would equate to more than a quarter-million people per year who visit the park. Susan Champeny, one of the Waiuli stewards and data collection coordinator for the pilot project, said the numbers are probably even higher, as she expects visitation was undercounted by 10% to 20%.

At Lehia, a wilderness park that’s easily at least four times bigger than Waiuli and has no amenities except a portable toilet and three trash cans, estimates show usage is above 10,000 people each month. Stewards counted about 9,000 visitors in December.

The numbers at Lehia, however, could only be estimated based on the number of cars entering the park each month, which Champeny said could be from 100 to 300 a day with an expected 2 to 4 people inside.

“Nobody had any idea how big it was,” said Champeny. “Those numbers demand respect.”


Waiuli is almost an even mix of tourist and resident use, with weekdays often being more tourist-heavy and weekends and holidays seeing more residents. Lehia is used mostly by Keaukaha residents and community groups. Its heaviest use is on weekends, especially at the beginning of the month.

Residents previously identified Keaukaha as a highly visited hot spot in Hawai‘i County’s 2020-25 Hawai‘i Island Tourism Strategic Plan and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s 2021-23 Hawai‘i Island Destination Management Action Plan.

It was a joint project between the Keaukaha and Leleiwi community associations, Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, Kupu, Hawai‘i County, Hui Ho‘oleimaluō and Keliʻi William Ioane Legacy Foundation, which led the project. ‘Āinaaloha Ioane is the executive director of the foundation and also served as project coordinator for the pilot stewardship program.

Keaukaha is the second Big Island community to implement a steward program for improved destination management and preservation.

In 2021, the state tourism authority also provided funding for the Pololū Trail Steward Program, a pilot project in North Kohala, which was a collaboration between Nā Ala Hele Trail and Access Program, the lineal descendent community of Pololū and Kupu.


The Keaukaha initiative was also aimed at addressing residents’ concerns at Waiuli and Lehia through community-led, government-supported action, including helping mitigate unwanted and bad behaviors and spreading cultural and historical knowledge of the parks.

Unfortunately, counting all those people didn’t leave much time for the few stewards at the parks to do much more outreach other than answer questions, hand out pamphlets and listen to concerns. It was seldom they were able to engage with park users away from their base of operations.

Ioane mentioned community members also sometimes identified the stewards as people there to only interact with tourists and not them. Champeny said when Keaukaha residents did come to talk, however, they were engaged.

Concerns stewards heard from residents ranged from poor conditions at Richardson’s during construction last summer while Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades were underway and still not having an easy way to access the water at the beach to a lack of enough bathroom and shower space to accommodate the number of people visiting the park.

One of the largest concerns is environmental issues such as illegal aquarium fishing, harassment of turtles, nēnē and other wildlife and the taking of natural resources such as rocks and sand. Champeny said those types of issues happen every day.

There has been some change as more awareness has been brought to those issues and collaboration with the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources for more enforcement. Champeny said moving forward, the community might be more willing to call the agency when issues arise because they see action happening now.

“Hopefully, that will result in some more permanent change,” she said.

Dogs also are a problem, as they are not allowed in either park. Champeny said she probably picks up about a pound of dog excrement a day and she has several other friends doing the same.

The animals are even more of an issue at Lehia because it has an unfounded reputation on the internet for being a dog park.

“You can just walk through the park and you’ll see 10 or 12 dogs off-leash, roaming around at any time of day or night,” she said, adding if they’re not roaming the canines are often tied to a handicap rail. “We have counted as many as probably 30 in a day.

“That’s a little scary because there are often large dogs roaming around, uncontrolled. They get into fights with each other, with people. God forbid if there’s a goose in the way.”

Tour driver behavior is another hot-button issue, with about a 10% compliance rate among those who bring tourists to Waiuli especially adhering to parking and traffic laws. Champeny said since the beginning of the pilot program, however, there has been incremental improvement made as stewards worked with the drivers.

There’s now a feeling of uncomfortableness and displacement that arises for Ioane and other Keaukaha residents while they are at Waiuli and confronted by the massive amount of visitors who frequent the popular area.

People swim at Richardson Ocean Park, also known as Waiuli Beach Park, on Tuesday morning, July 11, as students learn about an adjacent fishpond in the background behind the rock wall. (File photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Commercial tourism in itself also is of concern for residents as they can now see the level of visitation.

She said those emotions stem from the difference in how the space is used by each group.

Community members create memories and have experiences every time they visit Waiuli and Lehia, which last for generations. That leads to aloha ‘āina, a deep compassion and love for the land and a desire to make sure it’s protected and safe.

That doesn’t happen with tourists, who often spend only about 30 minutes at Waiuli.

“They are not aloha ‘āina because there’s no reciprocation. There’s only a taking,” Ioane said.

She said it’s almost like they’re trying to get to the front of the Walmart line or another line if the one they’re standing is is long. There’s a sense of urgency and rush — “hurry up and get out of my way” — and that feels abusive.

Ioane hopes the new visitation data and community input revealed by the pilot project will spur a new direction for tourism in the Keaukaha area. She is in the process now of engaging with the community to share the project’s findings.

Screenshot from Google Maps

“It definitely was worth it,” Champeny said about the pilot. “The community is engaged and talking and has been very clear about some of its needs, by displaying, by behavior, both good and bad, and by speaking out very vocally, which is fantastic. I don’t think we’ve had this level of community engagement. I haven’t seen it in my career in such an intense way before.”

However, that also shows stewardship of both parks is not a one-day-a-week job. It needs to happen every day or it will not be effective. That’s one of the biggest takeaways for Champeny and Ioane.

They were able to get a short extension for stewards to work at the parks but for just four days a month. Ioane also was able to get some additional funding for a community sentiment survey, which she hopes will light a fire under officials and the residents to develop a community-driven plan to deal with the issues visitation and commercial tourism create in the Keaukaha area.

But whether a full-time stewardship program can be put in place, which could create employment opportunities for Keaukaha residents and continue the work started by the pilot project, remains to be seen.

Ioane is optimistic, however, that the community is ready and eager to participate in redesigning what the tourism industry looks like in Keaukaha and that decision-makers on the Big Island are ready to have that conversation.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at nathan@bigislandnow.com
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