Can covering visitor spaces on Maui help curb overtourism? The groups continue to bicker over proposals
Maui tourism industry officials and other community members again debated whether limiting the number of visitor rooms would help curb excessive tourism.
Nearly 30 witnesses spoke Tuesday at the Maui planning commission, which is considering whether to recommend a measure that would make the two-year moratorium on hotel construction more permanent.
Opponents say capping visitor accommodation will not reduce visitor arrivals; the move would negatively impact construction jobs; and the rule would have unintended consequences, such as boosting illegal vacation rentals in residential areas.
Advocates say the visitor industry has experienced unbridled growth for too long, resulting in negative impacts on natural resources, infrastructure and the quality of life for residents. They argue that if they can’t book in advance, more hotel rooms aren’t needed and people won’t come.
Like the moratorium that went into effect in January, the measure would allow existing transitional housing units – but prevent future ones from being built or converted. It would also prohibit the temporary parking of RVs and recreational vehicles used for temporary accommodation unless permitted by zoning and permitting, among other things.
There are currently more than 24,000 visitor accommodations, according to 2021 data from the county’s real estate appraisal department.
Even if the commission doesn’t recommend the cap, Maui County Council will have the final say. To date, Advisory Committees in Paia Haiku and in Hana have recommended approval of the department’s revisions.
However, industry representatives showed on Tuesday that they will not go down without a fight. People with jobs related to tourism and construction demonstrated ahead of the planning meeting in Wailuku.
“Ultimately, this law does not stop tourists from coming, and when it comes to managing tourism, capping transient units is not the way to go,” said Lahela Aiwohi, vice president of the Hawai’i Hotel Alliance, from Maui Rally . “Tourists will continue to come and we will see more tourists looking for illegal short-term rentals and pushing them into our community.”
Also, about 20 people, including hotel lobbyists, workers and union officials, along with people from the construction and smaller temporary lodging sectors, dominated testimony during the Maui Planning Commission.
Lisa Paulson, executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, said the moratorium will not have the overall desired effect of limiting arrivals to the islands.
“It’s a federal matter,” she says. “Indeed, by introducing a cap, another adjustment platform would emerge to make up for the loss.”
Paulson added that hotels currently have 76% or less occupancy. Visitor arrival data suggests tourists are finding other places, possibly disallowed, illegal accommodation, to stay in.
Bruce U’u, a lifelong Maui resident and field worker for the Hawaii Carpenters Union, acknowledged frustration with tourism and said he feels it every day living in Paia.
“But if we can’t stop the plane or the boat, we won’t stop anything,” he said. “If we talk about control or management or do something with tourism, if the same thing comes with the same amount of people, the same boat comes, nothing changes – we mix things up.”
About six residents backed the measure, a far cry from dozens of supporters during the council’s moratorium on hotel construction hearings.
Kula resident Dick Mayer said Kahului Airport, with its historically long lines, is a good example of Maui’s overtourism.
Additionally, the Maui Island Plan and Countywide Policy Plan discuss limiting the number of visitor lodgings and maintaining a sustainable balance between resident and visitor populations, he said.
The Maui Island Plan, which is part of the Maui County Code, stipulates that the number of visitors does not exceed one-third of the resident population, or 33%. In June, visitors exceeded that number by about 16%, according to recent data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“We can’t stop people from buying second homes, but what we can do is regulate the number of visitor units on the island,” he said. “Because very, very few people come to Maui without a place to stay. . . . By limiting the number of places to stay, we can control overtourism.”
Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, also said visitor numbers are exceeding the Maui Island Plan goal.
“The first step to solving the problem is not making it worse,” he said.
Rod Antone, a former executive director of the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, said he was not testifying to support or oppose the measure. But he argued that leaders should take more time to study whether the existing moratorium is working before extending it indefinitely.
“[The suggestion is]ready, fire, aim — rather than ready, aim, fire,” he said.
The measure, introduced by Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, would limit the number of temporary housing units for properties in the apartment and hotel districts to existing levels, among other changes to Title 19, including a ban on temporary RV parking and recreational vehicles used for temporary accommodation unless permitted by zoning and permitting.
Temporary housing includes hotels, condominiums used for temporary housing, single-family bed and breakfasts, licensed/occupied single-family temporary housing, timeshare condos, and hotel zone condos not used for temporary housing .
The meeting was rescheduled Tuesday to allow the South Maui Community Advisory Committee to officially make its recommendation. The Maui Planning Commission is expected to consider the issue again in late September; The meeting will allow for public testimony.