Three Maui County mayoral candidates consider tourism management a platform priority
Three candidates for Maui County’s mayoralty revealed Saturday what they would do to manage tourism at a time when the islands have reopened to near-record visitor numbers.
Alana Kay, author and publisher, Mike Molina, member of Maui County Council, and Jonah Lion, ecocultural tour guide, both said the issue would be a priority in their administrations. The three discussed ways to balance the key economic driver with residents’ quality of life, infrastructure needs, and conservation of natural resources.
“It’s a case of loving Maui to death,” Molina said.
The three spoke about other key issues including affordable housing, homelessness, water issues, budget priorities and economic diversification during Akakū’s Mayoral Invitational Forum Saturday at the outlet’s Kahului headquarters.
The forum, which was broadcast live on Akakū on three channels, also invited contestants Cullen Bell and Kim Brown, who were unable to attend. It was moderated by Chivo Ching-Johnson, Akakū’s Director of Government Access.
Akaku’s presentation was the second part of a Mayor’s Forum sponsored by the Maui Realtors Association, the Maui Chamber of Commerce and the Maui Hotel Lodging Association, and attended Thursday by Mayor Michael Victorino, Maui County Council member Kelly King and the retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen Jr. attended as contestants at the Maui Arts and Culture Center.
During Saturday’s forum, Molina said tourism management would be a priority if he were elected mayor and a “viability study” would be conducted. He said he supports a hotel moratorium on council that puts new visitor accommodation on hold so the impact of overtourism can be studied.
“Why are we trying to build new hotel accommodation when the staff don’t have accommodation,” he said.
Though Maui doesn’t need more marketing because it’s in high demand, Molina said the narrative needs to change for Hawaii, which isn’t a place to visit, “frolic around and do crazy things.”
“Come here with reverence, as if you were going to Rome,” he said. “You don’t go to Rome to celebrate and do all kinds of things, but for the awe it exudes and for the cultural and historical aspects.”
While tourism is a vital part of the economy, high visitor numbers have a major impact on infrastructure, the quality of life of residents and natural resources. Recent state data showed Maui County had its highest monthly visitor count since the pandemic. Economists predict it will take a few years for the county and state to reach and surpass historic highs set in 2019, when Maui County’s attendance exceeded 3 million and Hawaii’s more than 10 million.
Molina said tourism management could include a reservation system for Hāna and other culturally sensitive areas, a fee system for nonresidents in county parks, and working with industry and community stakeholders on a way forward.
“We really have to respect the quality of life of the residents,” he said.
Kay said tourism management is also one of her “key issues.” She said many residents agree the island has reached a point of over-tourism.
“We have a sustainability crisis that’s underway,” she said. “I think a lot of us feel that way.”
Instead of one person dictating how tourism should be managed, the community needs to come together to discuss what tourism management means and bring all ideas to the table, Kay said.
“We have to come together as a community and decide what is managed tourism, that shouldn’t be dictated by one person because it affects everyone – just like the closure in 2020,” she said.
Kay said the Maui Visitors Bureau and the Hawaii Tourism Authority should reinforce messages guiding education, ecotourism, voluntourism and holistic healing values.
Lion also said tourism management is a priority.
As a guide that educates visitors about the health of the ecosystem, tourism can be a vehicle to educate.
“It’s an educational opportunity,” he said. “As people come in to learn more about the history of Maui, to learn more about the history of Hawaii, to learn more about the culture.”
For now, though, it’s a “zoo out there.” Lion described Hāna as a madhouse in various locations and said there should be more training and protocol to enter the culturally sensitive area. Perhaps visitors shouldn’t go to Hāna without a trained tour guide, an approach that would help create jobs for local residents.
Management must bridge the gap between the resident and visitor experience, he said. HTA studies have shown correlations between resident and visitor satisfaction.
“It’s lose-lose (at the moment),” said Lion. “How do we turn this into a win-win situation?”
Maui and other neighboring islands are more reliant on tourism, according to economists. The candidates offered ways to diversify the economy away from the visitor industry.
Kay highlighted agriculture. Lion said Maui must continue to grow its own food, along with crops like hemp. Molina emphasized education, professional training in healthcare and agriculture as a means of diversifying the economy.
For the full Akakū Mayoral Invitational Forum, see Akaku’s website.