Damien Canonization and the Visitor Experience

Molokai continues to address a coming influx of tourists.

By Catherine Cluett

“We all have a mutual interest in the canonization of Father Damien,” said County Council Chair and Molokai representative Danny Mateo at a Damien planning meeting last Wednesday. “Our mutual interest is the survival of Molokai. It’s not a catholic thing, it’s a people thing, and we need to come together in this planning process.”

Over two dozen individuals of varying professions from visitor services, to National Parks, to the Catholic Parish, did just that. They came together to share ideas about how Molokai can both give and receive in this unique opportunity of sainthood, and honor what Father Damien worked so hard to achieve.

Some people may see the event as a way to boost their business’ revenue; for others, the prospect may bring fears about cheapening their identity and culture. Most committee members agree that regulation is the key to finding balance between these extremes. The group brainstormed and discussed ways in which both Kalaupapa and topside Molokai can best manage and regulate the influx of visitors to the island in the coming months.

Residents of Kalaupapa get top priority. Zhantel Dudoit of the Molokai Responsible Tourism Initiative expressed concern about the ability to regulate businesses that want to operate on the peninsula. She also mentioned the probability of undesirable concessions as the area opens up potentially new places to do business.

“Patients have first right of refusal for concession,” says Steve Prokop, Supervisor of Kalaupapa National Historic Park. He says the law protects honoring patients’ wishes, and after that, people of Hawaiian ancestry have the next priority.  Prokop added that the Parks Department can also accept or reject any proposals.

“As long as patients are living, they have the final say,” says Gloria Marks, owner of Damien Tours and a Kalaupapa resident.

“What about helicopter tours flying into Kalaupapa?” asked Cheryl Corbielle of the Molokai Responsible Tourism Initiative. “The airport is public,” she said. “Is anything stopping them?” 

Jennifer Cerny of Kalaupapa National Historic Park had the answers. “The helicopter service that had been trying to get permission to operate out of Kalaupapa pulled out, thanks to support from topside Molokai,” she said.  There is a buffer zone, she explained, that prohibits air traffic without special permission to operate in the area. The zone encompasses the peninsula from the land boundary of the cliffs to three quarters of a mile into the ocean. “But there are no laws to guarantee helicopter companies won’t try to come back in the future,” she added.

The way in which visitor packages are structured is another method of regulation, suggested Terryl Vencl of the Maui Visitors Bureau. “You have an opportunity to control your destiny if you make up appropriate packages,” she said. “We don’t want it to be so difficult that it will chase them away, but we need to continue close management.”

Committee members also identified the need to compile a complete collection of the rules and regulations regarding Kalaupapa. “I think people will find there are more hoops to jump through than they expect, said Judy Bittenbenseem. “There are a lot procedures for Kalaupapa. People need to plan in advance.” 

What good does a coconut tree do if you can’t reach the coconuts? There is a similar problem currently with the organization, or lack of it, of Molokai services and businesses. The island has all the resources it needs to provide a rich visitor experience. All that’s missing is the link between them that would make them accessible and usable to visitors.

“We need to create a special website,” said Dayna Harris of Swenson Real Estate. The website would feature a complete collection of all necessary information, including lodging, food, activities, and Kalaupapa information, all in a use-friendly format.

“Yes, but we need not only a website, but also centralized organization for tourism-related businesses, said Dudoit. “We need to coordinate packages.” She expressed concern that if someone from Molokai doesn’t start a new business that will act as an umbrella organization for the visitor industry as a whole, an outside agency will see the opportunity and take over instead of using local expertise.

“We’re talking about central booking,” explained Bittenbenseem. “In terms of starting a new business, we already have all the resources we need already, we just need to coordinate.”

Mateo stepped in and formed a sub-committee to organize a point of central contact as well as coordinate an inclusive website for the visitor experience of the Damien Canonization. The group will meet separately and present their conclusions to the main group at the next meeting.

While Kalaupapa patients have agreed on several occasions to lift the daily visitor cap of 100 people per day for special events, they have chosen so far to leave the 100 person limit for the Father Damien canonization, said Marks.

Airlines are currently also limited in their capacity to fly into Kalaupapa. Mateo said they have communicated to the county that once they begin to receive more calls about flights onto the peninsula, they will increase their flights as needed.

The group has already compiled an inventory of all the island’s resources and their capacities, such as transportation, accommodations, and other visitor services for a more comprehensive look at what we have and what we need.

At present, all visitor permits to enter Kalaupapa are handled by Damien Tours, except those at special invitation of patients or staff. Concerned committee members wondered whether Marks would be able to handle such an increase in demand that will no doubt flow in after the canonization, and likely begin as soon as the date is announced.

“I have email,” Marks explained, “but the problem is, I don’t know how to check it!” she laughed.

“Maybe we just need to figure out how we can be of help to Gloria,” laughed Mateo.

Prokop said on the day of the event, Parks will have 25 to 50 rangers on hand to help, “or whatever it takes,” he said.

Committee members concluded that taking into account the rigor of the hike, the capacity limits of Kalaupapa, and the likelihood that not everyone will plan ahead enough to make it happen, many visitors won’t, and don’t have to, actually make it down to Kalaupapa for a rich visitor experience.

The Visitor Experience
What is the vision of Molokai we want to share with those from far and wide? What do we want them to experience? How do we want them to experience it? Committee members said we have control over the answers to all these questions, even if we don’t have all the answers yet.

Putting together a variety of visitor packages will be key in the process. The development of a Damien experience topside will also offer solutions. “We need to widen visitor experiences to expand on Kalaupapa tours,” said Molokai resident Teri Waros. “What else would make up a visitor experience? Topside Molokai has always had a kuleana to Kalaupapa,” she continued.

Prokop already has ideas. He said the Parks Department has plans to build a trail topside Molokai along the Kalaupapa cliffs, with overlooks and stations to see and learn about Kalawao County without actually making the trek down. “We recognize the need for National Parks presence and connection topside,” he said. They have applied for a $100,000 grant that would cover costs, as well as the hiring of at least one uniformed ranger, or “interpretive specialist,” to add to the visitor experience topside. He also mentioned including a Damien exhibit in the Molokai Museum.

As Bittenbenseem pointed out, people may want different grades of tours, such as just a Father Damien tour topside, or a one-day or two-day experience package. “And if people haven’t planned well, at least they could learn about Damien and Kalaupapa even if they don’t actually get there. This is sacred ground on top too,” she added.

“Kalaupapa and topside need to work together, not overshadowing each other, for the best overall experience,” concluded DeGray Vanderbilt.

For more information about Kalaupapa, visit the Park Department’s existing Kalawao County website at www.nps.gov/kala.

The next Damien Meeting is scheduled for Dec. 3, 9 a.m. to noon, location TBA.


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