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Survey: Traffic tops list of tourism problems

HTA starts process to create new model for managed tourism

A United Airlines jet taxis to a Kahului Airport gate after landing Tuesday afternoon. The Hawaii Tourism Authority held a virtual public meeting Wednesday to seeking community input on its plans to better manage tourism in Maui County. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Traffic jams topped the list of problems created by tourism in a Hawaii Tourism Authority survey of Maui County residents, followed by cost of living, a lack of respect for the culture, damage to the environment and overcrowding.

Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, made note of the survey Wednesday evening at a virtual HTA forum on building a new model for tourism for Maui County amid the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of tourism.

“This global pandemic fundamentally turned off the economic engine, put us into a total collapse,” said John De Fries, HTA president, at the forum. “Here we are eight months later and we are still in an economic free fall.

“But what’s also becoming evident is that the most responsible model of tourism is regenerative tourism, tourism that will look two, three, five, seven generations from now, and begins to understand and envision the responsibility of making sure the natural resource base is there for every generation to be able to build and implement fair quality of life.”

Each county will develop its own Destination Management Action Plan (DMAP) created by a local steering committee — a select group of residents working for local nonprofits, different business sectors, community projects and the visitor industry.

“This is a critical step in making a move to becoming a more responsible manager to the future of tourism,” Fries said. “Essentially, inviting the community to give definition to the kind of tourism you believe will be congruent and able to coexist with your community.”

This pandemic is a time to “reset and reboot” the economy and “change how we manage tourism,” he said.

Steering committee and public meetings, which began in September, will run through December. Maui residents can provide feedback and input on the proposed actions online at https://bit.ly/MauiDMAPForm by Nov. 9.

To achieve the long-term vision by 2025, HTA representatives said they will focus on five components: respect for natural and cultural resources, support for Native Hawaiian culture and community, ensure that tourism and communities enrich one another, strengthen tourism contribution and manage island resources.

Implementation of the DMAP is projected to start in January.

The first proposed action in the DMAP plan is to initiate, fund and continue programs that protect coral reefs, shorelines, clean ocean water, native fish and marine wildlife, as well as land-based ecosystems and bio security.

“We hope to do this by promoting Hawaii’s sunscreen law and by educating visitors on sunscreen use,” said Kawika Freitas, director of public and cultural relations at Old Lahaina Luau and member of the Maui steering committee.

Other objectives include creating a system that inspects incoming luggage and carry-ons for invasive species, providing incentives for recycling and renewable energy installation, supporting efforts to reuse wastewater and reduce runoff, pollution and shoreline damage.

In enacting another component, hotels and resorts will be required to have cultural education programs, including Hawaiian language lessons, training programs and workshops in the community, as well as inserting cultural education classes into the state Department of Health curriculum.

The panel plans to develop and implement marketing strategies with “place-based authenticity to attract visitors.”

“We do this by having more Hawaiian culture at the airport — Hawaiian words, values,” Freitas said.

In working on the component to ensure “more direct benefits to residents from tourism,” Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce, said this might include a higher tax rate on short-term rental homes and the county receiving more tax and fee revenue from the state.

The panel will look into promoting the value of tourism through positive media, education and discussions with the community, she said. This could include monthly Zoom meetings to keep residents involved and informed and to collaborate on needs and concerns.

Implementing and enforcing laws regulating commercial activities on public properties and short-term rentals, addressing sustainability and making sure that construction projects align with county visitor projections are other issues being considered.

To address traffic and overcrowding, committee member Lisa Paulson, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino executive assistant, said the panel is looking at implementing reservation systems for “our fragile areas on the island” and notifying visitors that some areas may be off limits.

A few ideas to improve transportation and ground travel included having hotel employees stagger shifts, developing more bus systems between hotels to the beach or restaurants to mitigate traffic, limiting hotel and resort vacancies, offering one-day rental car services, or creating an airport to hotel van system, Tumpap said.

As part of the next component, the panel is focusing on creating a “responsible tourism” program that educates visitors pre- and post-travel about being respectful and safe, Tumpap said. The program will include building an official Maui visitor app with information on “road closures, events, local culture, resource protection, and areas that are off limits,” such as protected areas, beaches and trails.

Visitors also can be informed through social media or public service announcements on flights.

The HTA also will develop new travel safety regulations regarding COVID-19, testing for the virus prior to arrival at sites internationally, and hotel and resort readiness certifications to protect workers and guests.

On the final component, the panel is considering the best ways to address the impacts of sea level rise, rebuilding or reusing roads, implementing policies to rebalance residents’ cost of living, increasing funding for law enforcement and reducing the reliance on the tourism industry as the sole economic driver.

Toni Davis, executive director of Maui Activities and Attractions, said “we need to re-imagine and redo” how tourism drives the economy.

“Over-tourism, we don’t want to go back there, we don’t want to be like the Caribbean where everyone is either very, very wealthy or very, very poor,” Davis said. “By doing what we’re doing right now, and by you participating, it can put structures and boundaries in place and have strategies and procedures, and change the way in which we work before everyone starts coming back, which probably won’t be until next summer.

“Let’s slow down and get this right.”

During the forum Wednesday night, Duong said that more than 3 million tourists, a record, visited Maui in 2019 — 66,000 visitors on any given day. They spent a total of $5.13 billion.

Based on total visitor days, the U.S. West was Hawaii’s largest market at 54 percent, followed by U.S. East, 27 percent, and Canada, 12 percent.

The vast majority of the visits were for vacation purposes, 81 percent, while less than 5 percent were for visiting friends, having a honeymoon or wedding or other reasons.

From January to August, there have been only about 600,000 visitors to Maui, which resulted in a 64 percent unemployment rate among employees in tourist-related jobs and accommodations and 57 percent in food service, she said.

“Yes, we are a marketing agency, tasked with making sure that potential visitors are reminded that Maui is a destination to keep on top of mind, but we do more than just market the island,” Duong said. “A key component is that MVB is protecting Maui’s culture and keeping our resources and community safe — safety is a priority for us, not only for our visitors, but our community as well.”

The goal with the DMAP is to diversify how the tourism industry can benefit other industries, rather than have tourism be the sole economic driver.

“We do need to plan for longer term rebuilding to the desired visitor industry,” said Paulson. “We really do need all of us together to help identify an appropriate balance between economic benefits of tourism and the impact on local services, natural and cultural resources, and residents’ quality of life.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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