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Molokai's Dilemma

They noted Molokai's limited infrastructure: Kaunakakai's pier has just one public toilet, and school buses would be needed to shuttle tour groups. Because of the reef, the Statendam would have to anchor in windy Kalohi Channel and tender passengers ashore. If rough seas made it impossible to ferry them back, where would the marooned people stay?Opponents also considered the Statendam a harbinger; other cruise lines sailing from the West Coast would surely also begin scheduling calls.

"We don't want to be like Waikiki," says Walter Ritte Jr., a leader of Hui Hoopakele Aina ("Rescue the Land"), a group opposed to cruise-ship visits. "Then you bring this ship...they'll be coming like herds of cattle."

Hui Hoopakele Aina retained a nonprofit law firm, Earthjustice, and filed suit in Maui's Second Circuit Court to demand an environmental-impact statement and public review. "We all want some tourism," Ritte told me, sitting at Subway, the lone franchise restaurant on Molokai. "The argument becomes, what kind?Those people want to do it the same way everyone else did: Increase your capacity, your airport, your harbors. Get big buses. But the end result is terrible."

Ritte is a veteran grassroots activist; it wasn't long before signs sprouted in front yards all around the island. Businesses that depend on tourism were split. Alex Puaa, who operates Molokai Off-Road Tours, told me he had "no problems" with the visits. But Dayna Harris, who leads sea-kayak expeditions, worried that cruise ships would scare off the independent travelers who are Molokai's lifeblood. "My take right now is we don't need them," Harris says.

As the Statendam's visit approached, the MVA hired musicians; the Hui printed T-shirts. On the big day, more than 150 demonstrators assembled on the pier and in canoes. "Neither side wanted to back down," Harris says. "I just left it up to the gods, and they took care of it."

Strong winds kicked up whitecaps in the channel, making it too rough for the Statendam to lower its tenders. After a few hours, the ship steamed away. In January, a second visit was scratched after the ship diverted to assist a yacht in distress.

At that point, the venture seemed star-crossed. In February, Holland America scuttled two scheduled April visits. Princess Cruises, which had planned to call this December, also canceled after state legislators asked the line to meet with residents.

To many native Hawaiians, Molokai is a vestige of the old ways, the last, best place to follow a traditional lifestyle. Aside from privately held Niihau, it is the only island in the archipelago where the indigenous population comprises a majority.

"Most Hawaiians who grew up in the state remember it being like Molokai," says Harold "Tuddie" Purdy III, who owns a macadamia grove. Purdy stands to profit from an influx of tourists, but he staked a sign in his driveway castigating the cruise ships. "We're involved in tourism, on our level," Purdy says. "And our level is: Most Hawaiian Island."

However, Zhantell K. M. Dudoit, who operates a special-events company, calls the Hui's concerns "a lot of bogus hullabaloo." Every fall, she notes, thousands come for the Aloha Week outrigger-canoe races. "It's okay for locals to come," Alex Puaa adds wryly, "but not tourists."

On a clear day, one possible future—of subdivisions and golf resorts and office buildings—is visible across the water on Maui. No one I met on Molokai wants to live in such a place. That's why they came here, or never left. But they have to put food on the table. Everyone was struggling to find a balance that would sustain Old Hawaii a little longer.

At press time, Ritte had just received a surprising request. The two cruise lines wanted to address a community meeting in late September to announce that they would not call on Molokai. Tom Dow, Princess's vice president of public affairs, said the line would speak with Molokai residents first, then possibly explore the feasibility of bringing passengers on day excursions from Maui. "We're there to listen before we proceed," Dow said.

Ironically, at the same moment, another ship, the 340-foot Clipper Odyssey, reportedly attempted to land passengers on the pristine North Shore. "The battle looms," Ritte predicts. "This is not Kaunakakai Harbor, but a sacred area." A Clipper spokesman said the line makes one visit a year and does not intend to make a landing.

At any rate, the same strong seas that stymied the Statendam thwarted the Odyssey's planned visit. On Molokai, the gods still seem to set the ultimate terms. "Molokai does her part," Ritte says. "We do ours."

Honolulu-born CHRISTOPHER R. COX is a feature reporter for the Boston Herald.

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