Activists delay rebirth of Hawaii hotel with Elvis ties

People supporting the occupants of the Coco Palms property in Wailua on the island of Kauai in Hawaii link hands in solidarity as the deadline for the court-imposed order vacating the property approaches in this January photo. (The Garden Island via AP)
Updated 16 February 2018
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Activists delay rebirth of Hawaii hotel with Elvis ties

HONOLULU: Developers rebuilding a storied, hurricane-ravaged Hawaii hotel with a Hollywood connection were looking forward to the Coco Palms’ rebirth when two men showed up last year, claiming to own the property because they descend from King Kaumualii, the last ruler of Kauai.
The men set up camp in tents and at the old tennis pro shop at the shuttered resort, where Elvis Presley’s character got married in the 1961 film “Blue Hawaii.” Hurricane Iniki forced its closure in 1992.
“They simply just showed up and started squatting,” said Chad Waters, one of the partners of Coco Palms Hui, the company leading the redevelopment.
Police were called, trespassing citations were written, and a judge last month issued an order to evict them.
Since then, a stream of protesters has come and gone, with some days just a few demonstrators and others dozens camped out at the resort near an ancient Hawaiian fishpond in the community of Wailua.
It’s the latest example of Native Hawaiian activists taking a stand on cultural issues and sacred places, such as challenging a giant telescope planned for a Hawaiian mountain and blocking the US military from using an uninhabited Hawaiian island as a live-fire testing site.
The protest also comes amid continued activism by indigenous groups across the US, who have rallied over issues ranging from sports mascots to environmental causes such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.
Attempts to reach the two men in the Coco Palms case — Noa Mau-Espirito and Charles Hepa — by phone and online for comment were unsuccessful. However, Mau-Espirito last year told The Garden Island newspaper: “We have title to the land. We’re not camping. Our goal is to get all the families who have royal patents in Wailua back on their land.”
The judge disagreed with the men, ruling their claims don’t give them the right to occupy the property.
For Kaukaohu Wahilani, who flew from his home on Oahu to Kauai to support Mau-Espirito and others, it’s about standing up to the wrongs committed against Hawaiians — all the way back to the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom 125 years ago.
“That was the place of kings, that was the place of alli,” he said, using the Hawaiian word for ruler or royalty. “It was a sacred place, and it still is.”
He and other Native Hawaiians want the area called by its traditional name, Wailuanuiahoano.
At least 50 protesters gathered at the site, bracing for law enforcement action, as the judge’s 6 p.m., Jan. 28, deadline to leave the property approached. But no police showed up, and the protesters remained.
“I was kind of hoping (police) would have showed up at 6 because we had a lot of people there,” said Wahilani, a Native Hawaiian activist who considers himself a subject of the Hawaiian kingdom.
Last month, the defendants filed a document stamped the “Hawaiian Judiciary Court of the Sovereign,” saying the judge in the Coco Palms case needs to surrender to law enforcement or face “immediate arrest.” In court documents, Judge Michael Soong called the filing nonsensical “legalistic gibberish.”
Five to 10 people have been at the property this week, Waters said.
He and his partner requested help from state sheriffs.
Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said only that the sheriffs are working toward a resolution with the property owner, Kauai police and the protesters. “For safety and security reasons, we are not at this time, free to discuss any strategies that may be utilized in any related enforcement action,” Schwartz said in a statement.
Demolition began in 2016, with the goal of reopening in mid-2018. The clash has caused delays, so the developers hope start construction soon after the protesters leave, Waters said.
The renovated hotel will have 350 rooms, including 22 master suites and about 50 junior suites. Hyatt will manage the hotel once it’s reopened.
Wailua was the political center of Kauai long before the resort opened in 1953 and Presley’s character crooned the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” while holding his bride’s hand and boarding a raft to cross a lagoon.
It’s where chiefs were born and lived, said Lilia Merrin, a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. Because of its high amount of surface water, it was ideal for loi, irrigated fields for farming the starchy vegetable taro, a staple crop, she said.
Growing up in Wailua, Merrin knew of Coco Palms mostly as the hotel where family friends worked in service jobs before the hurricane. She learned about its Hawaiian significance in college. “If we understand these places, we can better protect them,” she said.
Coco Palms Hui has planned since 2014 to set aside land at the resort for a community nonprofit that will offer lessons in Hawaiian culture, including hula, lei making, Hawaiian language and ukulele.
The nonprofit also will provide hotel workers with a guide about Hawaiian culture and the historic Wailua area. The fishponds and lagoons are on the state historic registry and will be preserved.
Tyler Greene, the other partner of Coco Palms Hui, has said the resort will help the island by supporting “healthy and vibrant activity for both the residents and visitors,” according to The Garden Island.
The Coco Palms fight was inspired by what passionate protesters accomplished against the Thirty Meter Telescope, which they said would desecrate sacred Mauna Kea, Wahilani said.
Construction stopped in 2015 after 31 demonstrators were arrested on the mountain for blocking the work. A second attempt to restart construction ended with more arrests and crews retreating.
The project is now tied up in legal battles.
“Mauna Kea brought us together, and since then we’ve done amazing things,” Wahilani said.


Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand

Updated 06 June 2018
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Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand

MITZPE RAMON, Israel: Israel has already been credited with making the desert bloom. Now it hopes to make it boom — with tourists.
Seeking to bolster tourism to its vast and largely undeveloped Negev desert region, Israel is promoting luxury camping trips, Bedouin hospitality and challenging outdoor activities like dune surfing.
In addition, a new international airport is rising from the desert floor 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian port of Aqaba.
Tourism in Israel is big business, bringing in $5.8 billion in 2017.
Arrivals to the country of about eight million citizens hit a record 3.6 million last year, the Israeli tourism ministry said.
The United States, Russia, France, Germany and Britain accounted for most of the visitors.
The ministry says that it now seeks to grow the Negev’s share of total Israeli tourist revenue from the present five percent to 20 percent within two to three years.
It also aims to increase the number of Negev hotel rooms from 2,000 to about 5,000 within six to seven years.
Israel is marketing the desert as a unique destination on Europe’s doorstep.
“When it’s very cold in Europe, let’s say in December, January and February, we have very mild temperatures in the Negev,” the tourism ministry’s Uri Sharon told journalists on a tour of the sparsely populated region.
Activities include hiking, biking, rock climbing, abseiling and dune surfing — akin to snowboarding on sand.
The Negev is also home to a geological marvel: the Ramon Crater, the world’s largest erosion crater.
Salaam El Wadj has opened up the encampment where he lives with his wife, children and goats to visitors, who can stay in one of the tents and listen to his stories of Bedouin life.
“I was born here in the Negev hills,” he tells his visitors over strong, sweet tea.
Wadj relates how the arrival a century ago of British and French administrators and, in 1948, officials of the new state of Israel, brought a drive for modernization that disrupted and threatened the nomadic Bedouin way of life.
Hosting tourists, he said, enables him to preserve his heritage.
“They don’t want to just sleep in a Bedouin camp but also to learn,” he said.
Hikers can walk along part of the Negev Highland Trail, covering about 12 km a day between Bedouin camps while their luggage is transported by vehicle.
Near Wadj’s site, Hannah and Eyal Izrael have planted vineyards on terraces where Nabatean farmers cultivated vines 2,000 years ago.
Their Carmey Avdat winery produces just 5,000 bottles a year of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other wines.
Eyal supplements his income by offering tourist accommodation in cabins and group tours to surrounding sites of interest rather than industrializing his winemaking.
Visitors can help run the production line and bottle, cork and label their choice of wine personally.
“All the time there are tourists from all over the world coming to the Israeli desert to explore, trek, taste our wine, go to other farms to taste goat cheese,” he said.
“The Negev is a very safe and accessible desert and it’s warm here.”
The vines grow in a natural basin, watered in winter by runoff from the surrounding hills and augmented with a modern irrigation system fed by desalinated sea water piped from the Mediterranean coast.
Not far from Carmey Avdat is the town of Mitzpe Ramon, which stands at the edge of the Ramon Crater.
There, travelers after tranquility with a luxurious twist can go “glamping” — glamor camping — in luxury tents with hot showers and a personal chef.
When inky night falls over the crater’s floor, there is the option of gazing through high-powered telescopes at the stars shining brightly in the unpolluted sky.
The Negev’s heart is only about a two-hour drive from Israel’s main international airport near Tel Aviv.
The new Ramon Airport will bring jumbo jets from around the globe to the desert itself.
Its website says that it will be able to initially handle up to two million passengers annually, but will be able to expand to a capacity of 4.2 million by 2030.
Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda airport, about 60 km away from Eilat, will move to Ramon, it says.
They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines.
Construction began in May 2013.
Israeli media say that the airport is expected to start operations this autumn, in time for the November-May winter tourist season, but the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) is making no official forecasts.
The IAA says the original specifications for the project were revised in light of lessons learned during the 2014 Gaza war.
After a rocket fired by Hamas militants in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, international carriers suspended flights.
IAA spokesman Ofer Lefler said that the revised plans for the Ramon airport will allow it to serve as a backup in addition to boosting tourism.
“In an emergency, not only will Israel’s entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft,” he said.