Sunday, 12 July 2009

A decline in Mauna Kea tourism?

I haven't been at the summit of Mauna Kea much recently but my impression is the commercial tour companies have been doing quite well despite the poor economy. Hotel occupancy rates are down on all the islands and I thought that would result in fewer people visiting the summit to witness the amazing sunsets and the odd tour to see the even more stunning sunrises. Still, when I was up there regularly until a month or so ago, the tour company traffic appeared to be as healthy as ever.

Those trips are not cheap, typically $200 per person, but I've heard few bad words about the tours and considering what's included the money is likely well spent. They don't just take you on a quick trip to the summit to see the sunset, they also stop on the way down to star gaze at the at the 9000-ft level and get to meet and talk to the experts on the night sky; the volunteer staff at the visitor center. The night sky there is often much more impressive than the summit simply because there's more oxygen in the atmosphere and your eyes work much better!

The visitors in the first picture were watching the same sunset I saw and it was among the most beautiful and spectacular ones I've seen. My pictures of it are in my two previous blog entries but here's another one - taken at the same time those tourists were going "ooh!" and "ah!". I suspect one or two were vomiting as well due to the altitude - I always like to add a bit of romance to my posts.

On this evening I also had a really interesting chat with one of the Mauna Kea rangers called Matt, a most pleasant fellow. He mistook me for a tourist at first although I don't know why; I was standing outside with a camera saying "ooh" and "ah", obviously the behaviour of a long-time professional astronomer who's worked at the summit for well over a decade. Anyway, we had a great chat and he told me that although the evening visitors seem to still be stopping by in roughly the same numbers, the daytime tourist numbers have dropped significantly.

I'm not sure what to make of that. The tour companies tend to cater for the sunset crowd and during the day it's always been individual tourists at the summit in their rental cars, whether legal or not. It seems that it might be this particular type of tourist that has stopped visiting and I'm not sure why that's the case. It's always been a cheaper way to visit the summit, especially for a couple or family, but of course you don't get a tour guide. Maybe I'm just a little out-of-touch with 4-WD rental costs.

This is a picture taken next to the UKIRT of the CSO (left), the JCMT (middle) and one antenna belonging to the SMA (far right). At the bottom you can see some tour company visitors inspecting our emergency evacuation vehicle (the red van which is our ambulance that we're all trained to use, including turning on the siren which is great fun!). Oh, perhaps they having a closer look at the CSO...

The next few months will be interesting. I'm not up again for a while but the schedule is ever changing so you never know. In the meantime I'll see if I can find out a little more about visitor numbers.

No comments: