(Update: On December 20, American Safari Cruises announced that the island’s residents had come to an agreement with local groups and that visits to Molokai would resume in late January 2012.)
All I wanted to do was visit laid-back little Molokai, that off-the-grid Hawaiian island that’s well off most visitors’ radars. But instead of leis and alohas at the dock, I was greeted by a mini-mob of local residents telling us to get lost. On the upside, these were the politest and most good-natured protesters I’ve ever encountered. (And as a child of the ’60’s, I know protesters.)
My crime? Arriving by cruise ship — even though my vessel, Safari Explorer, was a tiny little thing carrying only 36 passengers. I was in the middle of a week-long voyage from the Big Island to Maui and was looking forward to seeing Molokai’s lush valleys and cliff-top vistas. When we docked in early November and heard the chants of “Cruise ship go home!” from about a dozen locals, my first reaction was that there must be some mistake. We were, after all, your basic small-footprint, minimal-impact, ultra PC eco-tourists. And we had money to spend!
But the protesters made it clear they did not want cruise ships of any size befouling their harbor. They stalked us at the dock, driving around town — and even during an excursion to a remote valley.
So what’s the problem? According to a report on MauiNow.com, opponents are upset that the new-to-the-scene Safari Explorer was allowed to add Molokai to its itinerary without community input, as well as “impacts of the ship on the island’s lifestyle and resources.”
It’s clear that the locals are split on what constitutes reasonable development. Several tour operators and local business owners told me that they do want small cruise ships to visit (i.e., spend money), and they maintained that only a handful of activists are opposed to small ships like the Explorer.
Still, I had to admire the protesters’ dedication. I talked for several minutes with one demonstrator who was walking the picket line alongside five adorable local kids, and tried to convince her that we weren’t the devil (“But we’re not a cruise ship! We’re just a small yacht!”) — but to no avail. She did, however, wave a friendly goodbye to me when I walked back to the ship.
Nice they may be, but the protesters are not giving up. In fact, the situation is escalating. Two weeks after my visit, Safari Explorer, which is owned by American Safari Cruises, had to abandon its planned stop on the island after the protesters took to the harbor waters on surfboards and small boats. The Explorer captain made the call to leave the harbor, and the ship spent that day docked off the coast of nearby Lanai. It was able to return to Molokai the following day without incident.
On Wednesday night, according to Maui Now, more than 200 people attended a meeting; the outcome was iffy, with community leaders expressing optimism that a deal could be worked out and protesters vowing to block the ship again. For his part, American Safari Cruises CEO Dan Blanchard, who attended the meeting, said in a statement that he’ll meet with more Molokai residents “in hopes of a long-term, mutually agreeable resolution.” Until that happens, the Explorer has decided to postpone its Molokai visits for now — starting this weekend.
Whatever the outcome, the ongoing drama offers a fascinating glimpse into daily life on one of Hawaii’s most alluring and mysterious islands. If you’ve been considering a visit, don’t let this conflict put you off. The aloha spirit is still alive and well among the locals — even when they’re yelling at you to go home.
Check out other posts from our When Bad Things Happen to Good Cruisers series, including credit card horror stories, burning cruise ships and foiled honeymoon cruises.
Ready for hula and poi? Check out our guide to Hawaii cruises and start planning a trip today.
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