Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Watching the sun set from the nearly 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea, a now-dormant shield volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, has become an incredibly popular Aloha State visitor activity. But travelers looking to check the acclaimed excursion off their to-do lists have been out of luck since late last month, as a closed access road has kept tour operators and the general public away from the top of the mountain.  

The road was closed June 24 after a group of protesters, hoping to prevent construction crews from accessing the summit to begin work there on a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project, built several lava rock walls and a pair of small stone shrines on the remote gravel roadway, which is managed by the University of Hawaii.

“Protesters were literally prying rocks and boulders out of the sides of the slopes and rolling them onto the road,” said Dan Meisenzahl, a University of Hawaii spokesman, adding that officials are conducting a rockslide safety assessment along the 8-mile stretch of road.

According to Walter Ritte, a native Hawaiian activist who’s been on the front lines of the Mauna Kea protest, the passion displayed on the mountain by so many of the Islands’ indigenous people in recent months has become “a symbol Hawaiians have rallied around.”

“Over the years, we’ve lost too many of our natural resources,” Ritte said, noting that Hawaiians consider the preservation of both ocean and land environments for future generations a critical responsibility.

“Stopping the building of this TMT telescope has brought Hawaiians together,” he explained. “And it’s become the No. 1 issue in the Hawaiian community.”

A place of great sacredness for the Hawaiian people, the summit region of Mauna Kea is already home to 13 astronomical observatories, which are managed in part by the University of Hawaii and take advantage of the summit region’s typically dry atmosphere high above the cloud layer. Although a number of tour products offer visitors a chance to stand near those impressive buildings while enjoying often fiery sunsets, tour-goers aren’t allowed inside and don’t have interior access to any of the massive telescopes during a visit.

Mauna Kea summit at sunset.
Mauna Kea summit at sunset. Photo Credit: Big Island Visitor Bureau

For Big Island activity providers who rely on viewpoints at the Mauna Kea summit region as a key attraction for their tour products, the closure of the access road by University of Hawaii officials has already taken a substantial toll on business.

“We’re just scrambling and doing whatever we can to stay alive,” said Mike Sessions, the base operations manager for Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. “It’s definitely hitting us hard.”

The company launched a modified tour option on July 1, offering travelers a chance to ascend to about 9,000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Kea, where customers will still do a great deal of stargazing, a major draw of the operator’s typical product. Mauna Kea Summit Adventures is offering the commissionable alternative tour at a reduced rate — $140 per person instead of $212 — but they still lost more than half of their original 28 bookings the first night.

“Most people are not going for the alternate tour,” Sessions said. “We lost about $50,000 in revenue before we started doing this option. It’s not something we can do and sustain this company, but we have implemented [the modified tour] to just try and keep the lights on for this week or so.”

The road closure has also taken a significant bite out of Mauna Kea tour business for Hawaii Forest & Trail, another Big Island company now offering a modified option for visitors who booked the mountain excursion.

“About 25% of the people are declining and deciding not to go,” said the company’s owner, Rob Pacheco. “The rest are still coming along, and we’re discounting the [modified] tour, of course, but we’ve lost both volume and income.”

At press time, no fixed timetable for the road’s reopening had been scheduled, and university spokesman Meisenzahl noted that the Mauna Kea visitor information station, also run by the university and located at about 9,000 feet, will continue to be closed indefinitely, due mainly to health concerns linked to untenable usage levels at the facility’s bathrooms and fresh water taps by protesters at the encampment across the street. Meisenzahl cited safety as the major concern for the university in its ongoing assessment of the Mauna Kea summit access road, but he pointed to recent comments by Hawaii Gov. David Ige as a positive sign for Big Island tourism businesses dependent on tours up the mountain.

“The governor has made some pretty strong statements in the last week, saying that it’s going to be a priority to keep that road open,” he said. “Hopefully, in the near future, the situation should settle down as far as access.”

Meanwhile, Ritte made it clear that when the road is reopened, Hawaiian protesters will be ready, saying they’ll “do what we’ve been doing the last very nearly 100 days now, and that is to protect the mountain from the people who are going to desecrate it with this monster telescope.”

He said that protesters have been letting visitors and tour groups up the mountain since their resistance effort began back in April and will continue to do so.

“All we want to do is make sure that they don’t build this giant, 18-story monstrosity on our sacred mountain,” he said.

Speaking with tourists gathered at the visitor center has, in fact, been a part of the protesters’ outreach, according to Ritte, who compared the TMT to the first high-rise hotels built in Waikiki, a beachfront destination now dominated by towering buildings.
    
“We aloha all of the tourists that come up there,” he said. “We’re more interested in educating people so they’ll come onto our side, [and] we’ve made a lot of friends.”

For travel agents with clients headed to the Big Island, the chance to enjoy Mauna Kea’s incredible stargazing remains a major component of the modified tours operated by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Customers will actually have increased time looking through a high-powered telescope, because that element of the tour has always been done at lower elevation, where there is simply more oxygen to breathe. And without the added commute to the summit, there’s more time to enjoy distant galaxies and even planets through the company's powerful portable telescopes.

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