A New Tourism Wave Breaks on Maui

With residents frustrated by the return of tourists, politicians usher in a new way of handling tourism....
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Every weekend, 53-year-old Noe Kaauamo makes two round trips from Wailuku to Wailua, to farm kalo in her family’s lo‘i. During the pandemic, the 37-mile drive down the Hāna Highway was “lovely,” she said. “Didn’t have to worry about anybody stopping.” But now that tourists have returned to Maui, each way takes an hour longer, and she gets frustrated. “I’m honking the horn and they won’t pull over,” she said. And although she knows the best places to pass, she has to ask herself, “Is it worth passing, risking my life?” 

Cars waiting for the light to change on a section of the Hana Highway under construction. Photo by Viola Gaskell.

No surprise to Maui citizens, Kaauamo isn’t the only one upset with the recent resurgence of tourists in pre-pandemic numbers. One early June morning, more than 100 demonstrators arrived in Wailea to “Take Back the Beach” from hotel workers reserving guests’ beach spots, displacing residents. A 2021 University of Hawaii Mānoa survey found that 52% of its 700 respondents—and especially Native Hawaiians and Neighbor Islanders—wanted to cap the number of visitors to the islands. A recent survey from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority presented a head-scratcher: Although 70% of the 376 Maui County respondents agreed that tourism is “worth the issues associated with the industry,” half of the respondents at the same time said tourism creates “more problems than benefits.

“Most critically, a 52% majority of Neighbor Islanders would choose a general cap on visitor numbers, compared to just 31% on O‘ahu,” states the UH report from June. “This likely reflects the much greater ratio of visitors to residents on most of these islands, especially Maui and Kaua‘i.” From John M. Knox, Colin D. Moore in June survey for UH Public Policy Center.

 

On the average July day this year, more than 30,000 airline passengers disembarked on Maui. (During the pandemic, only about 2,000 people arrived each day.) “The main reason why we’re seeing a return this quickly at pre-pandemic levels is because other places in the world are still closed,” said Maui County council member Shane Sinenci, who represents East Maui. But once more countries open up, their residents might then flock to Hawai‘i. Even more visitors may be just over the horizon as airlines add more direct flights to the islands from longer distances.

Resident uproar led some Maui politicians to rethink their stance on the tourism industry, but it didn’t get far. In an April op-ed, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, wrote, “Curbing overtourism and changing the nature of our visitor industry can’t be done by enacting new laws.” After Maui County council members approved a bill that would halt development of all visitor accommodations—hotels, short-term rentals, timeshares, condos—in South and West Maui for the next two years, Victorino vetoed it. The veto held as council members Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Tamara Paltin, who first supported the bill, changed their minds, citing potential legal problems. (Half of the Maui County residents surveyed by the HTA wanted a pause in further development of visitor accommodations.) But a moratorium like this isn’t new. Last September, the Maui County council banned the issuing of short-term rental permits on Lāna‘i for one year or until a cap is established.

The mayor’s veto came within weeks of him asking airlines, over which he has no authority, to bring fewer tourists. “It is a sad contradiction for the Mayor to state publicly that he wants a pause in the influx of visitors and yet fight for the development of more places for them to stay,” council member Kelly King, who championed the hotel development moratorium, wrote in a press release.

Still, Victorino then followed up by signing an agreement with Airbnb and VRBO’s parent company, Expedia, that he claims will help shore up illegal short-term rentals. The Maui News reported in July that the Planning Department estimated that there are 217 permitted short-term rentals in the county. But, in 2021 alone, 4,786 unique Airbnbs on Maui were reviewed—common practice after one is rented—data from the independent website Inside Airbnb showed at press time.

A new state law will allow Maui County to increase taxes on tourist accommodations. Before the law passed in July, the state levied the transient accommodations tax (TAT) against all hotels, condos, and short-term rentals in the islands, and dispersed $23.5 million—22.8%—back to Maui County. The new legislation, HB 862, eliminates Maui County’s share of state TAT revenue, but Mayor Victorino and the county council can now increase the county’s own TAT from 10.25% to 13.25%. Victorino told Hawaii Public Radio that the additional TAT could generate $35 million to $40 million for the county annually, with collection starting in September or October.

Of each of the additional 3 percentage points, “I’d like to see 1% go toward the development of affordable and attainable workforce housing, 1% for emergency services including ocean, land and air rescues, and 1% to fund visitor education and cultural restoration throughout Maui County,” Victorino said in an April statement. The new TAT would apply to all hotel rooms and legal short-term rentals, the statement said, which Victorino believes “will serve as an incentive for Maui County to crack down on the growing number of illegal vacation rentals that don’t pay TAT.”

In April, the Maui County council budget committee unanimously voted to defund the Maui Visitors Bureau, a subsidiary of the HTA tasked with marketing Maui. The motion replaced Victorino’s proposed $1.5 million grant to the MVB with a $500,000 tourism management grant for which the MVB will have to compete against other organizations.

“If they want money, then they need to come and show us what it’s going to be used for,” council member Tamara Paltin said during the committee meeting. “And right now, we know it’s going to be used for Maui Jim Invitational, PGA.” 

Already, a 2020 Cost of Government commission report had found that in fiscal year 2018, Maui County was allocating its tourism marketing agency at least 10 times more money—$4 million—than the other counties were to their own. Hawai‘i County’s agency received $325,000, Kaua‘i County’s got $215,000, and the City and County of Honolulu paid its agency nothing. Despite the MVB’s windfall, the report found that Maui only brought in $975 in visitor spending per county dollar the MVB received, a fraction of Hawai‘i County’s rate of $5,662 and Kaua‘i County’s $7,209.

Kainoa Kaauamo, 35, helps his auntie Noe in the family kalo patch, so he already drives the Hana Highway twice a week. But Kaauamo also works as a paramedic, driving out to Kaumahina Park, near Honomanu, to pick up the Hana ambulance’s patients and shuttle them 30 miles to Maui Memorial Medical Center in Wailuku. “As I’m traveling out to go pick up patients, I’m stuck in traffic. And then you reach those tight areas where cars are illegally parked, it’s difficult for us to get through, and then there’s gridlock,” Kaauamo said.

Recently, Victorino and state legislators have overseen the installation of about 70 signs on Hana Highway that warn of a $35 fine for illegal parking, according to a press release from the mayor’s office. The Maui Police Department issued 389 parking citations from Haiku to Hana between June 1 and 23, the press release stated. Nowadays, once-filled spots by the Bamboo Forest are now empty.

For all Kaauamo’s time stuck in traffic, he senses a larger issue at stake. “What are these people doing? They’re stopping on the side of the road to go swim and frolic in ponds and go to all these places that I hold sacred, that we hold sacred,” he said.

“A lot of the people on the East Side, they don’t have jobs, so they focus on making a living by fishing, by going in the mountains and hunting and gathering,” Kaauamo said. “Now where we go to get ‘opae, there’s a family of tourists swimming in our gathering spot. There’s a lot of people swimming in the water and their sunscreen is in the water, and that’s the same water that’s feeding the taro below.”

Kaauamo calls himself optimistic, but “the crazy thing about it all is tomorrow, a whole group of people comes in that’s new,” he said. “So you can yell and you can bark at the tourists that are here today and educate them and set them straight and kick them off of the road. Tomorrow’s a new group coming in, and it’s the same story coming in tomorrow.”

Jack Truesdale

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