Friday, November 19, 1999

Parker Ranch photo
Parker Ranch, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, has
230,000 acres of land at Kamuela on the Big Island.

Big Island’s
Parker Ranch hoping
to beef up tourism

Everything is looking up for the
historic ranch as departing county
official Diane Quitiquit prepares
to take over the new
hospitality division

By Peter Wagner


RAIN has been falling in the hills of Waimea, a blessing after two years of drought at the sprawling Parker Ranch.

"Everything's green and beautiful," said Carl Carlson, Jr., a trustee of the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust. "There's a bunch of good things happening."

Beef is back in favor with consumers after a health-food hiatus. Cattle prices, up 10 percent this year, are riding an updraft in the cycle of supply and demand. And a surge of investment in Big Island real estate is pumping capital into the local economy.

Walking into this rosy picture is Diane Quitiquit, who has resigned from her posts as Hawaii County director of research and development and chairwoman of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Quitiquit, whose efforts to stimulate the Big Island's economy have been lauded, will join Parker Ranch as head of its new hospitality division on Jan. 1.

"I'm very excited," she said. "I think the potential at Parker Ranch is just tremendous."

It's a bold move that could bring guest accommodations and other visitor attractions to the 152-year-old cattle ranch, which, after early setbacks, has been slow to embrace tourism as a secondary source of revenue.

"We'd like to be a bigger player in the hospitality business than we have been," said Carlson.

Parker Ranch, one of the nation's largest with 230,000 acres of land and 30,000 head of cattle, had 80,000 tourists to its visitor center and museum last year. Tourist-related revenues have doubled in each of the past two years. But with the exception of occasional trail rides or film shoots, the ranch itself is mostly closed to tourists.

Quitiquit said the historic ranch, founded in 1847, is made-to-order for tourists because of its worldwide fame.

"Visitors now are looking for experiences," Quitiquit said. "Up to this point, we have only made Parker Ranch available on a very limited basis for people to experience the ranch."

Carlson said the ranch has been studying "guest ranch" operations at other ranches, where visitors stay at overnight accommodations and interact with cattle operations. He said Parker Ranch likely will develop some kind of guest lodging.

About half of total revenues at Parker Ranch now come from cattle. Real estate development, quarrying operations, a retail complex and other business interests make up the balance.

Carlson would not disclose current revenues but said they are up over last year. According to Hawaii Business magazine, Parker Ranch reported revenues of $29.7 million in 1995 and $19.7 million in 1996. In 1997 and 1998, ranch revenues were below a threshold of $20.2 million and $21.5 million, respectively, to make the magazine's annual "Top 250" list of Hawaii companies.

Carlson said revenues in 1995 were abnormally high due to major real estate transactions and fiscal adjustments. But he said the ranch is close to meeting the $20 million-plus mark this year.

The ranch is negotiating to lease a large tract of land for commercial logging.

The forestry, to be on unproductive pasture land, would tie in with separate plans by mainland investors to build a $25 million plywood factory near Hilo.

Carlson said the ranch is also eyeing an emerging market for "carbon credits," where industrial polluters invest in forests grown strictly to absorb carbon dioxide -- the "greenhouse gas" blamed for global warming.

Many Hawaii ranchers, struggling with mainland competition and the high cost of land and feed, have been diversifying and hitching onto the state's tourist industry in recent years.

Kualoa Ranch on Oahu, which began inviting tourists onto its property more than 10 years ago, led the way with tennis, helicopter rides and ocean sports. Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui has made room for a 22-acre winery, raises elk and hosts commercial hunting and shooting.

And, alongside its 8,500 cattle, Kahua Ranch near Hawi on the Big Island is raising sheep, growing vegetables, and exploring alternative energy. The ranch recently leased some land for development of a wind energy farm and is soon to offer tourists guided tours of the ranch by all-terrain vehicle.

"I think it shows the resilience of these ranchers," said Charles Cosgrove, controller at Kahua Ranch. "They've faced some daunting prospects and rather than fold and give up they keep looking for other avenues to stay in business."

At the nearby Parker Ranch, Carlson is looking forward to tapping into tourism, a major growth industry on the Big Island.

"We have an obligation to our beneficiaries," said Carlson. "This is an area where we can increase our income. We also have an obligation to all our livestock employees and everybody else to help the ranch progress."

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