Resort’s ruins remain

Remnants of the once-elegant Coco Palms
are a reminder of the blow to tourism

By Anthony Sommer

LIHUE >> The ruins of the Coco Palms Resort on Kauai's east side remain the single most dramatic monument to the devastation Hurricane Iniki caused for Kauai's tourism industry.


» A decade after
» Deadly power
» Lingering fear
» First-hand view
» Resort's ruins
» Then and now

Once one of the most elegant hotels in Hawaii, the Coco Palms was full on the night of Sept. 10, 1992. On Sept. 11, as Iniki approached, the guests were evacuated to Kapaa High School. The hotel has been closed ever since, the only resort on Kauai that remains shut.

The roof of the main lobby is half gone. The registration desk is covered with sheets of plastic. The grand stairway that led up to the restaurant is rotted and cracked. The buildings, even the ones that appear undamaged, were so badly twisted by Iniki they never can be used again.

The only regular visitors to the Coco Palms arrive on the daily tour of movie locations around the island, a scheduled pilgrimage to the cottage where Elvis Presley filmed "Blue Hawaii."

The Coco Palms also fell victim to the events of Sept. 11 last year. The company that was to finance its reconstruction was headquartered in the World Trade Center and unable to participate in the hotel rebuild.

1990 was the best year ever for Kauai tourism: 1.23 million visitors and the second highest hotel occupancy rate in Hawaii. The visitor count slumped in 1991 because of the Gulf War but was rebounding nicely in 1992 before Hurricane Iniki hit.

After Iniki, Kauai did not top the 1 million mark again until 1998. Mayor Maryanne Kusaka says 1999 was the year that Kauai's economy returned to normalcy and 2000 was a "boom year" for the island.

On Kauai, tourism remains the engine that drives the economy. And twice within two decades the island has had to rebuild its tourism industry.

"Iwa hit Kauai after Tony Kunimura was elected mayor but before he was sworn in. He used to joke that he seriously considered backing out of the job," said Kusaka, who was Kunimura's chief aide.

Kunimura went on the road to travel industry conventions and, at least partly through his efforts, tourism rebounded and thrived in the late 1980s.

Then Iniki arrived in 1992 and it hit the island's largest resort area the hardest of all. In Poipu, Iniki brought much more than high winds. Huge waves demolished resorts, wiping out a decade of construction.

The roof of the Coco Palms Resort appears ready to collapse. The laminated wooden beams are beginning to disintegrate, and most of the colorful transparent panels are missing from the cathedral-like wall.

"The physical recovery turned out to be slower than previous experience because insurance companies were skittish after two major hurricanes in 10 years," said Margy Parker, executive director of the Poipu Beach Resort Association.

"Most of the insurance companies dropped their coverage of the resorts. Those that remained charged huge premiums and imposed very large deductibles," Parker said.

And because the county imposed more stringent building codes, rebuilding was expensive.

But an even bigger problem was consumer confidence, particularly among travel agents booking Hawaii vacations on the mainland. Long after the physical damage had been repaired, travel agents were led to believe Kauai still looked like a disaster area.

"Our competitors on the other islands were perpetuating rumors that Kauai had no water and had no electricity. Travel agents heard that and told their customers, 'You don't want to go there,' " said Sue Kanoho, who headed the Kauai Economic Development Board at the time of Iniki and now is executive director of the Kauai Visitor Bureau.

Kauai's response was a revival of Mayor Kunimura's traveling road show, consisting of government and private sector representatives in an unofficial coalition called "The Kauai Advertising Group". It was aimed solely at educating travel agents about Kauai's recovery. About 5,000 travel agents attended the seminars across the country.

Coco Palms Resort engineer Wayne Perreira recently stood in what's left of the hotel's lobby. Perreira said he was the last person to leave the hotel after making sure that all the guests were safely evacuated before Iniki ravaged Kapaa.

Although her globe-trotting road trips have been criticized, people in the tourism industry give Kusaka, who became mayor in 1994, enormous credit for following the example set by her former boss.

"In 1996 we had only 30 percent to 40 percent occupancy," Kusaka said. "The travel industry believed Kauai was not ready. Freckles Smith (who owns a number of tourism-related businesses on Kauai) and I went to the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) global convention in Philadelphia and implored them to come to Kauai the following year.

"About 600 of them came and I think that was really the beginning of our turning the corner."

Kusaka also was a key player in helping several major resorts to rebuild, pressing state agencies for needed permits and placing the hotels at the top of the permitting list for county agencies.

Kusaka looks at her help restoring the tourism industry after Iniki as the lasting legacy of her administration. The vanity plate on her car reads simply: 911.

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