Plan could bring tourism to Midway Atoll by spring 2007

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A small and remote island group with no hotels, the Midway Atoll would appear to be an unlikely tourist destination.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a plan to bring tourists to Midway Atoll as soon as the spring.

A fly speck on a map of the Pacific, the Midway Atoll consists of three tiny islands fringed by a coral reef on top of a submerged volcano 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu. Sand Island, the largest of the islands and the only one with buildings, measures 1.8 miles long and 1.5 miles wide.

What put Midway on the map was its importance as a naval base during World War II and as the site of the 1942 Battle of Midway, which many credit with being the turning point of the war in the Pacific theater.

According to Barry Christenson, refuge manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, there is demand for visits to the atoll among adventure travelers, former residents, people with an interest in history and wildlife enthusiasts.

Christenson emphasized that the plan is still in preliminary stages and would have to be approved by the three government agencies that share jurisdiction over the territory: the State of Hawaii, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration under the Dept. of Commerce and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Dept. of the Interior.

If tourism is allowed, visitors would fly into Sand Island on 15-passenger, chartered planes and stay for about a week in the former Bachelors Officers Quarters-C or "Charlie Barracks," which was renovated in the 1990s.

"We're thinking of maybe bringing in 100 people for the year," Christenson said.

Initial forays would be on a trial basis, in hopes of finding partners in the travel industry that could expand the operation.

"We're looking for partners to help with transportation, marketing and so forth," he said. "It's a small program. To do it on our own is not sustainable. We're not tour operators or travel agents; we're refuge managers."

One thing that would distinguish Midway as a tourism destination is the fact that it holds three federal titles.

In 1988, Midway was designated the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

In September 2000, Midway was designated the Battle of Midway National Memorial.

On June 15, 2006, a 1,200-mile stretch was designated as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. Midway is at the northern edge of that stretch.

Visitors would be drawn by the monument to the war, Christenson said, but upon arrival would be "completely enthralled and captivated" by the wildlife.

"There's wildlife everywhere here and crystal-clear, green water. It's just beautiful," Christenson said. "Even people who aren't wildlife lovers find themselves carried away with it. It's like living in a National Geographic TV show."

Christenson said Midway has the largest colony of albatrosses in the world and is home to green sea turtles and spinner dolphins.

No tourists have been able to visit Midway since January 2002 when Midway Phoenix Corp. pulled out of its contract to operate tourism, citing financial losses and disagreements with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Under its agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Midway Phoenix had provided transportation and worked with partners to offer diving, fishing and ecotours since 1997, after the closing of the naval base.

Midway Phoenix has since disbanded, according to Barbara Maxfield, external affairs chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before it was a naval base, Midway was uninhabited. N.C. Brooks, an American captain of a sealing ship, discovered it in 1859 and claimed it for the U.S. When tensions built in the Pacific between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. established a naval base there in 1940.

On June 4, 1942, there were 4,000 Americans stationed in Midway when Japanese warplanes bombarded the atoll. After extensive air and sea battles, the Japanese called off a land invasion on June 5.

In 2007, Princess Cruises is sailing the 1,590-passenger Regal Princess to Midway. The cruise departs on May 28 from Los Angeles and arrives in Midway for the 66th anniversary of the Battle of Midway on June 4.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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