This is how district leaders believe Maui can get tourism under control

From limiting the number of hotels to requiring tourists to make reservations for popular spots like hiking trails and waterfalls, a group of Maui County leaders are tasked with finding new ways to control over-tourism published his list of ideas.

For the past six months, a small group of Maui County Council members — officially known as the “Temporary Tourism Management and Economic Development Investigation Group” — have spent hours meeting and interviewing business, government and community leaders to identify new Finding Ways to Contain What many Maui residents believe is an unmanageable number of tourists.

Before the pandemic, Maui had more than 3 million visitor arrivals in 2019, according to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Those numbers fell to 793,000 in 2020 but rose again last year to nearly 2.3 million.

“When the pandemic started, everything shut down and everyone had this brief opportunity to see what it was like without the crowds — and then realize what we’ve sacrificed for tourism,” said Councilor Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who is responsible for the led a group of four that included Council members Alice Lee, Tamara Paltin and Shane Sinenci.

“It’s not just tourism; it’s very extractive, exploitative overtourism,” she continued. “We’re letting it get out of hand.”

In his 418-page report released this week, the group outlined a dozen changes the county could make in hopes of preventing tourism from affecting the quality of life for longtime residents. The document’s release is the latest development in a community-wide reckoning on Maui’s relationship — and dependence — on tourism that has come into focus during the pandemic.

A group of Maui County leaders who spent six months studying ways to control excessive tourism released their 418-page report Wednesday with a dozen suggestions. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2021

Last month, the council voted to pass legislation pauses construction of new hotels and visitor housing for two years or until the district sets a cap on such places, whichever comes first. The council overrode Mayor Mike Victorino’s veto. who said that back then“If we don’t have the right type of visitor accommodation in the right places, we could see an influx of vacation rentals into our neighborhoods.”

But advocates say the hiatus gives government leaders time to develop a plan to manage tourism, diversify the economy and address affordability issues in a community where the median price of single-family homes has just skyrocketed a record $1.16 million – far beyond the financial reach of many Maui families.

The report is the first step in a long review process that could unfold over the next year before any of the recommendations can come into force. Here are some of the ideas outlined in the report.

Limit the number of new hotels, vacation rentals, and other visitor accommodations

Maui can see up to 70,000 tourists at any given time — nearly one visitor for every two residents, the county says. And that’s more than the island, which has around 150,000 inhabitants, should have an existing circuit plan which states that the number of visitors should not exceed one-third of Maui’s population.

But Maui is well past that limit, so the group of councilors is proposing that the county limit the number of hotels, vacation rentals and other types of “temporary housing” to what the island already has. If the council agrees on a cap, it could trigger the end of the existing construction moratorium.

In the future, if existing hotels or condominiums are threatened by sea level rise, the group also suggests they be allowed to move to safer areas and build new ones.

Create a commission to manage tourism and hire a Chief of Tourism Management

According to the report, the Maui county government does not currently have a group of officials or a department actively working to manage tourism and its impact on residents and the environment.

The report proposes the establishment of a Tourism Management Commission composed mainly of community members whose income does not depend directly on the tourism industry. At least one of the members, the report said, should work in tourism to provide insights for the other members. This commission would also be tasked with selecting a new Chief of Tourism Management.

It’s unclear if the council could appoint a new commission without changing the Maui County Bylaws, which outline how the county government is structured and functions. A group of community members is reviewing the charter and proposing changes.

Challenge hotels and other visitor accommodation to go green

As government leaders prepare for the impact of the climate crisis on Maui, the report recommended urging the tourism industry to become more sustainable. That could mean encouraging hotels to use native plants in landscaping, conserving resources like water and electricity, and working to educate visitors about how to respect Maui’s culturally and environmentally sensitive sites.

Measure residents’ quality of life

As many Maui residents hunkered down to stop the spread of Covid-19 and avoid their own loved ones, visitors flocked to the island again as quarantine restrictions were eased. In peak season this winter, when Omicron was soaring, resort hotspots like Keawakapu were so packed with tourists that they looked like pre-pandemic Waikiki.

And while many Maui residents struggled to keep jobs in a tourism-dependent economy, a surge in out-of-state homebuyers drove home prices to record highs. It has become even harder to make ends meet for many of the island’s longtime families.

One of the group’s recommendations is to better measure residents’ quality of life and track how things are improving or not improving within the framework of the Map of the island of Maui, the document that defines how the community should grow and change. Some of the new measures could include residents’ commute times to work, the percentage of visitors to the island each day, and residents’ access to popular spots like beaches and waterfalls.

Reservation system for tourist hotspots

Over the past decade, some of Maui’s most popular natural resources, including beaches, hiking trails, and waterfalls like Twin Falls, have become so inundated with visitors that it’s become difficult for residents to enjoy them — let alone find parking. To protect these areas, the group recommends setting up a reservation system for visitors. Maui’s National Park already has a similar reservation system.

Hire someone to help Maui County work with the Federal Aviation Administration

The district has no control over how many seats are occupied on airplanes or the route airplanes take to Kahului Airport during takeoff and landing. And in recent years, the trajectory has changed to send commercial planes over Haiku, according to the report.

One of the group’s recommendations is to hire a firm to work with the federal government on aviation issues that would normally be outside of the county’s control. It also wants to urge commercial airlines to show instructional videos on flights.

These are just some of the group’s recommendations, which are scheduled to be discussed at a council committee meeting on February 23, after other council members have had a chance to digest them The 400-page report. Maui residents will have an opportunity to share their thoughts on the recommendations at this meeting.

Many of the recommendations also need to be verified by Maui’s planning commission in a process that can take several months.

“Nothing will happen overnight,” said Lee, the council’s chairman. “The legislative process is slow for good reason.”

Read the full report below.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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