Projects aim for sustainable tourism

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HONOLULU -- A nearly completed refurbishment of Waikiki is only the beginning of a mountain of projects aimed at modernizing visitor facilities all over Oahu, according to Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Recapturing the historical feel of the North Shore surf town of Haleiwa and creating a railroad around Pearl Harbor are just two of the long-term plans under way here to make some parts of the island more visitor-friendly, Harris said during a recent conference on sustainable tourism here.

In the last couple of years, the city has spent $60 million and the private tourism sector has spent $700 million in an ongoing refurbishment of Waikiki, Harris said.

"Waikiki is the core of our economic engine in the state," he said. Meanwhile, plans are under way to branch out to other parts of the island, he added.

In Haleiwa, for example, the city and county of Honolulu plan "a main street project to recapture the historical feel of that town," Harris noted.

As part of an islandwide plan on Oahu, the city and county of Honolulu have a plan to spruce up the North Shore town of Haleiwa. Although Haleiwa "has been allowed to deteriorate," Harris said, it remains a huge draw. It is located on the water, with two public beaches, and has a number of popular shops and restaurants.

The area that surrounds Pearl Harbor is not visited by tourists because it is partly industrial and partly an area that "looks like anywhere USA," said Harris.

The city plans to change that by resurrecting a railroad that goes along the harbor and by creating open space and an accessible waterfront for residents and visitors.

"Right now, you could take a visitor [there] and you wouldn't even know you are on the water" because of a long strip of commercial facilities that cut off views and open space, Harris said.

Another plan under way on Oahu will link downtown Honolulu and its adjacent Chinatown area with the nearby waterfront.

"Our downtown is cut off from the waterfront by a nine-lane highway, which killed the identity and character of downtown Honolulu," Harris said. "Our new plan is to reroute that highway over nearby Sand Island and under Honolulu Harbor and then make [the waterfront] a Fisherman's Wharf kind of place."

Another highway alteration took place on the main beach in the center of Waikiki, where the city took out one lane of the main artery, Kalakaua Avenue, and replaced it with waterfalls and greenery and created venues for cultural activities.

Also in Waikiki, in Kapiolani Park, the city refurbished the War Memorial Natatorium and built a new civic bandstand; it also placed surfboard-shaped historical markers all around Waikiki and started a free historical trail tour.

In a nod to Hawaii's past, the city built an interment site for the remains of hundreds of bodies dug up during 40 years of construction. Prior to that, unearthed bones in the area were "stored in shoe boxes in some warehouse," said Harris.

The city also has made an attempt to get Waikiki visitors and locals to interact through entertainment and cultural events.

"One of the things visitors were most upset with was they never met local people," said Harris. "Tourists were meeting other tourists and they were telling us, 'We want to meet the people of Hawaii.' Now we have all these events like Brunch on the Beach, where we close off the street for a Sunday brunch, and Sunset on the Beach, where we show movies on the beach with food booths."

Other upcoming physical improvements are a plan to enlarge the walkway between a canal that borders Waikiki, called the Ala Wai, and Ala Wai Boulevard.

"Ala Wai Boulevard is a speedway, and our goal is to widen that, take out one of the lanes and create a park area along part of the length of the canal," said Harris.

Harris began his talk on Oahu on a negative note, saying, "Mistakes were everywhere you looked -- limited cultural performances, monuments neglected, pollution problems and urban sprawl."

But by involving local residents in the planning process -- a program called 21st Century Oahu, a Shared Vision for the Future -- things are looking better every day, Harris said.

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