By Dr. Chuck Kelley (Dr. Richard Kelley is travelling. His column will return on June 13.) – Earlier this year, Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Director Laura Thielen unveiled a bold plan to improve the quality of our state parks. Unfortunately, the bill that would have provided the $240 million needed to fund the improvements did not make it out of the just concluded legislative session. With “Plan A” dead, Thielen is now working on a “Plan B.” Unfortunately, one part of that plan includes charging non-residents for admission to some state parks. While making park improvements is a wholly commendable idea, the idea of charging for admission at this time is ill-timed.
In the wake of the economic collapse and the recent H1N1 influenza outbreak, we are now facing thestrongest destination competition ever. We are seeing amazingly low prices from our competition, especially Mexico. Let’s be honest. Hawaii is a relatively expensive family vacation destination. Our visitors are already paying a hefty sum for their air travel, accommodations, dining and entertainment. And, they do notice that they are paying state sales taxes, GET, and the recently- increased TAT. Further increases on the price of a Hawaii vacation, from any source, are not advisable at this time. Period.
Customers today, more than ever, are shopping for good value. I am afraid that our state parks, when compared to the competition, do not provide value worth paying for. Certainly the natural beauty of our parks is outstanding. But our customers are accustomed to receiving far more from a state park entry fee. Most of our customers come from California, which has a tremendous state park system. Yes, they do charge entry to everyone who enters the park, but the quality of services provided for the entry fee is exceptional. A visitor can expect to find, not only clean and modern restrooms, but also such amenities as:
- Tour guides and organized activities
- Educational exhibits and family programs
- Wireless Internet access
- Museums and visitor centers
- Family camping sites which are reserved on-line
- Camping supplies for purchase
- Sleeping cabins
- Hot showers and changing rooms
- Horseback riding
- Quality food service
- Wheelchair access
- Well-marked and maintained hiking and bicycle trails
- Boat moorings and rentals
- Well lit and secure parking
Unfortunately, our state parks just don’t measure up to the standard that our visitors have come to expect. Currently, the only services offered at some of the parks on Oahu are . . . trash cans! To charge admission now would clearly create an unsatisfactory customer experience.
We must improve the quality of the experience before we start charging admission to our state parks. Right now, money for park improvements is very, very tight, but DLNR Director Thielen is to be commended for her creative ideas on ways to improve the facilities, such as using community volunteers. Another suggestion would be the use of private sponsorships as a source of funding. These types of out-of-the box solutions should be explored further and tried. Before we start charging admission, let’s make the park experience one worth paying for.