One of my earliest entrepreneurial pursuits was initiated during this period of the 1980’s when I was serving on the board of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii. This was a time when the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology (HOST) Park was created adjacent to the ocean thermal energy conversion research facility at Keahole Point on the West Side of the Island of Hawaii. So I spearheaded a campaign to give equal time to geothermal power on the East Side and proposed a Geothermal Utilization and Environmental Science and Technology (GUEST) Park. The “environmentalists” and residents of the Puna region actually supported the concept, but the lack of geothermal effluents, orchestrated by them, closed down the facility.
I thus shifted my interest to starting a new business: Hawaiian Onsens. With Donald Okahara, who ran the largest engineering consultant office on the Big Island, Ronald Kunimitsu, a principal for an architectural firm in Honolulu, and Harry Olsen, a campus geologist, we formed The Pacific Geo-Spa Group to provide services to developers who had an interest in building an onsen (natural spa) in Hawaii.
What about the foul smelling hydrogen sulfide. Well, on trips to New Zealand, I learned that this odor actually attracted tourists to the resort town of Rotorua. The stench, by my standards, was horrific. But, apparently, sulfur is said to be of medicinal value, plus, there were these psychological benefits. I’ve been to a wide variety of these natural spas throughout the world, and every one came with gradations of this aroma.
In Japan, 100 million regularly visit their thermal springs, and so do Europeans to Bath and Baden-Baden. Many of them vacation in Hawaii, so what better than another eco-tourist adventure? In fact, with a volcano that has been continually erupting for more than twenty years (I was actually golfing at the Volcano Golf Course about a quarter century ago when, on the tenth hole, there was a shuddering of the ground, followed by a visible fountain of lava no more than a couple of miles away—this was the beginning of this Kilauea eruption), Hawaii then, and till today, has nothing resembling a geo-spa. Our team would provide local knowledge, scientific evidence of potential hot spots, fusion designs blending East and West and the right contacts for environmental approval and political support. An early supporter, State Senator Richard Matsuura, was instrumental in passing legislation (S.B. No. 3285 in 1990) exempting geothermal fluids below 150 degrees F from environmental restrictions and water drilling constraints.
Harry Olsen, the Spark Matsunaga Fellow in Renewable Energy Engineering, directed the Hawaii geothermal drilling program at that time. He had the capability to use slim hole drilling equipment to prospect for the ideal sites.
In the 1980’s, Jim Woodruff and I presented a paper at one of the geothermal conferences in Hawaii on “Geothermal Spas: A New Business Opportunity in Hawaii,” which helped solidify the foundation for development. In December of 1988, Grant Thornton produced a study for Hawaii on health spas and reported the concept to be highly promising.
In addition to various locations around the island of Hawaii, we found an ideal beachfront property next to the Makena Prince Hotel on Maui. The hotel then was owned by Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, dubbed the richest man in the world. However, I regularly, in those days, stayed at the Seiyo Ginza (in Tokyo) owned by his half brother, Seiji Tsutsumi. So I struck up a conversation with Seiji’s people to consider developing the first onsen resort in Hawaii. Those talks never materialized, and today, poet and businessman Seiji, now in his 80’s, has largely become irrelevant, and Yoshiaki, lord of Seibu, has been scandalized and might well end up in jail. Morgan Stanley supposedly bid $19 billion for Seibu, so a lot of dollars are being tossed around.
In the 1990’s, Seiji Naya, a former campus colleague, became director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Taking on the role of university partner to assist in economic development, I drafted white papers, met with potential developers from Japan he recommended, toured them around potential geo-spa sites and, at one, point, actually helped trigger a project to build a spa at a golf course. Alas, even this never happened. However, on my world travels I now and then stopped off at onsens throughout the world to further gain experience and continue to build contacts. I vividly recall spending a night at one along the slopes of Mt. Unzen on Kyushu in Japan, snow falling, a glass of hot sake in hand, just soaking. A few weeks later, there was an eruption, wiping out this onsen. Pompeii…Unzen…that is a concern for geo-spas in Hawaii.
But while the opportunity remains, the Pacific Geo-Spa Group is dormant. I still visit onsens when possible, and now and then talk to interested developers. This is an idea whose time came a long time ago but lacked the right person to lead the way.