Years ago, in order to avoid being overrun by tourists, the City and County of Honolulu began controlling access to the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve by charging admission fees and requiring visitors to watch a conservation and safety video before entering.
But a Hawaii News Now investigation has found that a scheduling loophole by the city – one growing in popularity, thanks to tour companies and various social media posts – has allowed potentially thousands of tourists to circumventing those controls, potentially costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue each year.
All the loophole requires is an alarm clock: Visitors who enter the park between 6 a.m., when the parking lot opens, and 7 a.m., when employees at the ticket stand officially begin their work day, don't have to pay the park's $7.50 admission and can skip the instructional video.
One park regular and former Hanauma Bay volunteer estimates that hundreds of tourists exploit the scheduling loophole each day.
“Usually, I drive in here before seven o'clock, and it's sometimes really hard to find parking during the height of summer or the Christmas season,” said Anke Roberts of Hawaii Kai.
In a statement provided to Hawaii News Now, a city spokesperson said that most of the early entrants to the park are local residents and that the loss of revenue – and impacts on the environment – are minimal.
But during a visit to the preserve, Hawaii News Now counted more than 100 cars in the Hanauma Bay parking lot before 7 a.m., many of them rentals that had transported Japanese visitors.
Tourists say social media posts and visitor industry publications have made the loophole common knowledge.
"I had certainly read that there was a way to get in without paying that fee, if you got here early enough,” said Kevin Brown, a visitor from Jacksonville, Florida.
In addition to the lost revenue, Roberts says the bigger problem may be that the early tourists miss the mandatory conservation and safety video.
"A lot of people have never been swimming in the ocean, so they don't understand what a reef is,” she said.