Bones by the Beach

Facing Resistance Over Burials, Diminished Grand Wailea Expansion Edges Forward.

Resort development in Hawaiʻi is never simple. Even the most established properties can feel growing pains when they seek to expand. Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort and Spa is no exception. 

Opened in 1991 as the Grand Hyatt Wailea, it joined Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts portfolio in 2006. The expansive property presently boasts 776 guest rooms sprawling across 40 acres on the South Maui shoreline. It’s among the island’s largest resorts, and is its largest private employer. BRE Iconic Holdings—a division of private equity firm The Blackstone Group—purchased the resort in 2018 for a reported $1.1 billion. 

The new owners promptly hatched plans to revamp the property, including adding new restaurants and pools, 224 additional guest rooms, 40 private bungalows, two more levels of parking and renovating the spa. The Planning Commission recommended approval of the project, with some conditions, in 2019. 

But the following January, three Native Hawaiian community organizations challenged the proposal, which led to contested case hearings and mediation that stretched into 2021. As a result, the expansion plan shrank by 40%, and now calls for just 137 additional rooms. The 40 new bungalows have been scratched. 

Renovations have already begun. Recent additions include a new sushi bar in the resort’s open-air lobby. The posh Spa Grande is scheduled for a fall reopening. 

The three opposition groups—Mālama Kakanilua, Hoʻoponopono O Makena, and the Pele Defense Fund—object to the resort expansion’s potential to worsen traffic, deplete South Maui’s water supply, exacerbate drainage issues and pollute the ocean. But the issue they pressed more than any other is the desecration of traditional burials that invariably occurs when the ground is disturbed in areas where pre-contact Hawaiians lived, worked and sometimes fought. Wailea is one of those places. 

“We’re not going to give up on this because it is absolutely wrong for these hotels to keep building on top of our ancestors,” said Clare Apana, president of Mālama Kakanilua. “This is a place we’re going to take a stand. It’s very clear what’s at stake here. This was a major burial ground. We may never know how many actual burials were disturbed there.”

Carol Lee Kamekona and Ashford DeLima talk story after visiting iwi kupuna burials on Grand Wailea property as videographer Adriane Raff-Corwin (left) looks on. Photo courtesy Clare Apana.

At the time of original construction, a study performed by the resort’s osteologist estimated that the minimum number of individuals represented by the bones unearthed on site was 344, Apana said.

Interestingly, burials aren’t mentioned at all in the conclusions of a March 14 report by hearing officer Linden Joesting, a former deputy corporate council for the county assigned to help mediate the case. While the report concludes that the resort expansion plan “does not yet meet legal standards,” the deficient areas listed involve traffic, water and access for Native Hawaiian cultural practices on the site, not iwi kūpuna. 

“If you read the whole report, you’ll see that she admits…that many iwi were found there,” said Apana, “but she doesn’t put it in her conclusions.”

William Meheula, counsel for the Grand Wailea, said in a statement that, “The hearing officer’s report was a welcome confirmation of Grand Wailea’s enhancement plans and commitment to being a good steward.”

Attorney Bianca Isaki represents the opposition and has been instrumental in negotiations with the resort. “Now it’s up to the commission to go through the voluminous, multi-year record and then decide how it will proceed,” Isaki said. 

“We intend to stop the development,” said Apana. “We’re not asking them to take their hotel and leave,” she said. “We are asking them to stop digging up our ancestors.” She considers Maui’s iwi kūpuna her family.

“I feel like our ancestors are actually protecting this island, because we can’t be built on like other places,” Apana explained. “We’re just grassroots people, but we have our kūpuna and they are more powerful and worth more than all of the money that Blackstone has.” 

Dan Collins