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Maui visitor numbers hit all-time high

HTA study: More than 3 million came in 2019

Plenty of beachgoers, not much surf in Kihei’s Cove Park last year. A study released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority last week reports that Maui visitor arrivals surpassed the 3-million mark for the first time in 2019. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The number of visitors to Maui in 2019 surpassed the 3 million mark for the first time since record-keeping began three decades ago, a recent report showed.

Hawaii Tourism Authority’s visitor statistics released last week said Maui led Neighbor Islands with 3,071,596 visitors in 2019, a 5.4 percent increase from the year prior. It is the highest total since the agency began tracking arrivals in 1990.

The preliminary year-end data also showed the Aloha State for the first time pushed past the 10 million mark — with 10,424,995 visitors to the state last year.

Courtney Chargin, a Maui native who works in the local hotel industry, had mixed reactions to the report.

“It’s good for us but it’s not,” she said Saturday. “It’s a hard toss-up. It feels like (tourists) run us really thin. All their funds go to other things besides giving us raises and whatnot.”

A United Airlines jet makes its approach across Maui’s central valley to Kahului Airport on Thursday. The number of visitors to Maui in 2019 surpassed the 3 million mark for the first time since record-keeping began three decades ago, a recent Hawaii Tourism Authority report showed. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In the last few years, her commute to work has increased due to more vehicles on the road, and Chargin said the beach is overly crowded with people.

Since 1990, visitors annually for Maui have been above the 2 million threshold, only dipping below that mark once. In 2009, about 1.8 million visitors came to Maui.

Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said that Maui is becoming known as an “overtouristed” place.

Perez said his nonprofit is against any increase in visitor accommodations, adding that there are 10 new or expanded hotels being proposed for Maui.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘At what point is it going to be too much — is it 4 million (visitors annually)? What about 30 million? There’s got to be some recognition that we are on an island and it has a carrying capacity. There are only so many miles of beaches. In fact, our beaches are shrinking from sea level rise.”

Rod Antone, Maui Hotel and Lodging Association executive director, said Saturday that HTA numbers only provide a snapshot.

“The other part of the story is that the industry, government and members of the community are all working together to help manage tourism and educate our visitors,” he said. “There are a lot of efforts going on, from trying to get rules for visitors in every hotel room, to working with rental car agencies to shuttle visitors to their hotels where some of them can rent vehicles there, to placing educational videos in the airport.”

Perez said the mayor’s committee is mulling a rental car mirror tag on good etiquette.

While arrivals saw a record for Maui, Valley Isle visitor spending also hit a new high last year of $5.12 billion, a 2.4 percent increase over 2018. However, daily spending dropped 0.6 percent to $211 per person.

Antone said that although revenue went up, costs also went up for the hotel industry, including property taxes and insurance premiums, some of which increased by 30 percent.

“It’s always better to look at the whole picture,” he said.

Also, visitor numbers increased 3 percent to 66,414 visitors per day in 2019, according to the HTA report. During Maui’s slowest month of September, an average of 52,389 visitors were on island on any given day. The island’s busiest month of December had 75,884 average daily visitors.

For the month of December, Maui’s visitor spending (15.4 percent to $513.1 million), visitor arrivals (8.5 percent to 275,959) and daily visitor spending (9.7 percent to $218 per person) increased compared to the previous year.

With additional visitors spending more days on Maui, Perez said quality of life should be prioritized.

“We are all about promoting quality of life,” he said. “If we don’t get a handle on tourism numbers, then quality of life for everyone — residents and visitors — will continue decline.”

Keith Regan, HTA chief administrative officer, said that his group since December 2018 has undergone a paradigm shift where officials are focusing on just that.

“We’re no longer focused on volume but rather on resident sentiment, visitor satisfaction, per person per day spent and total spent,” he said.

Regan added that community-focused programs, many of which are on Maui, are boosted by HTA. The group puts more than 30 percent of its $79 million annual TAT allocation toward such efforts.

He said that although HTA’s five-year strategic plan isn’t due until next year, the group “felt it was critical” to develop a new one before then, and it was unanimously approved by HTA’s board of directors last week.

“This plan speaks clearly to the new direction and focus of HTA,” Regan said. “It focuses on our four pillars of natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community enrichment and branding.”

The plan will likely be published in the next 30 to 45 days, he said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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