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Tourism plan focuses on quality, not quantity

Critics say residents’ needs take a backseat to visitor industry

Kaanapali Beach hosts a variety of activities on the morning of Jan. 5. The recently released Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan says that while the county cannot control the number of visitors who come to the islands, it can focus on how to manage tourism before and after the visitors arrive. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Before the COVID-19 pandemic slowed travel worldwide, Maui County in 2019 accommodated a historic high of 3.06 million visitors.

Maui residents — and even visitors — had mounting concerns about overcrowding, and many felt the pandemic offered a chance to reset the tourism industry.

But how many visitors are the right amount for Maui County’s residents and resources?

A recently released plan says that it’s not possible to control the number of visitors, focusing instead on how to manage tourism before and after the visitors arrive. The Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan, facilitated by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, was formed in the months since visitors began returning under the state’s pre-travel testing program as a way to help each county reshape its own tourism future.

Kawika Freitas, who was tapped as a volunteer for Maui’s steering committee of 19 people charged with drafting the plan, said that residents and leaders want quality over quantity when it comes to Maui-specific visitors.

“The main message we were getting was quality over quantity,” said Freitas, who is director of public and cultural relations at Old Lahaina Lu’au and a Maui Planning Commission member. “Hopefully we can get less visitors to come, but spend the same amount of money by giving them a quality experience.”

Largely represented by those in the tourism industry, the steering committee, along with the county and Maui Visitors Bureau, created the plan, which aims to “rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism over a three-year period.”

While the pause in tourism has allowed several popular destinations around the world to rethink their visitor industry approaches, some Maui residents who have been tracking local tourism trends and data do not believe the new plan does enough to confront the larger challenges.

“The useless, fluffy DMAP report . . . avoids any discussion of most the most important issues,” Kula resident and retired professor Dick Mayer said this week.

Mayer, who formerly served on both the Maui General Plan Advisory Committee and Maui Planning Commission, said the new document did not consult the Maui Island Plan, the adopted guide for Maui County growth, which contains a large section on tourism.

The Maui Island Plan outlines a “desirable island population by striving to not exceed an islandwide visitor population of roughly 33 percent of the resident populations,” meaning no more than one tourist for every three residents.

Mayer said that in 2019, based on HTA data, visitors were 42.1 percent of the resident population — with about 2.37 residents for each visitor, which is already over the desired capacity stated in the Maui Island Plan.

He also said there is no mention in the management plan of Maui’s overdependence on tourism and the need to diversify the economy away from the industry.

“The plan is meant to bolster up tourism rather than providing a guide for allowing the tourist industry to have a proper, but not dominating, place in Maui’s future,” Mayer said.

Kai Nishiki, president of the West Maui Preservation Association and a Maui shoreline activist, said the management plan acknowledges the issues with minimal action to address the problems. Instead, more effort is made in the report to change resident sentiment without looking at effective tourism management for which residents are asking, she said.

“HTA has no control over how many people are coming here?” she asked. “I have never seen anyone from the tourism industry advocating for less hotels, less rental cars, less incoming flights, but I do see them wanting the airports expanded, more hotels, new freeways, more of our tax dollars to support HTA and MVB advertising, in essence just more ways to bring in more tourists.”

Mayer and Nishiki noted that most of the members of the steering committee are part of the tourism industry.

“Isn’t that like the fox guarding the henhouse or a bank robber guarding a bank?” Nishiki asked. “It’s ridiculous really, the tourism folks have a vested interest in this extractive and detrimental industry maintaining the status quo.”

When asked about its selection of residents for the steering committees, HTA said the county and the Maui Visitors Bureau took the lead on creating the list of potential steering committee members.

“We made sure that members of the steering committees represented various communities across the county as well as HTA’s strategic pillars — natural resources, Hawaiian culture, community and branding,” said Caroline Anderson, HTA’s director of community enrichment.

HTA reports, though, acknowledge the importance of residents’ voice in tourism development.

HTA conducts an annual Resident Sentiment Survey to gauge attitudes and to identify perceived positive and negative impacts of the visitor industry on residents.

The 2019 reported showed that resident sentiment had “generally weakened” compared to the previous year. The quality of visitor experience will likely decline if the trend continues, the report said.

“The two are inexorably linked and changes are necessary to improve resident sentiment — there must be a better balance of economic, social and cultural, and community benefits from tourism,” the management plan said.

“Providing residents with a voice in tourism development” is key to improving resident sentiment, it added.

When asked what HTA will do to help bolster residents’ eroding perspective of tourism, especially in a pandemic where people are suspect of outsiders, the agency said it is working collaboratively toward solutions that rely on “community input.”

“Improving the lives of our residents is a priority of HTA’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan,” said Anderson. “The Maui Nui DMAP was based in part on this strategic plan.”

While HTA is leading many of the efforts in the management plan, the agency said there needs to be “collaboration and support from other state and county agencies, the community, the visitor industry and other sectors to help move the actions forward.”

Freitas said he’s hopeful that when the plan is widely distributed, positive change can come when people make changes in their spheres of influence.

For example, if residents want quality over quantity, there is no need for the Maui Planning Commission to approve hotel expansions, he said.

Freitas also discussed action that can mitigate overcrowding in parks and other natural resources, along with ways the state and county can help educate visitors about proper cultural protocol and environmental safety, such as using reef-safe sunscreen.

One way state agencies are looking to manage visitor traffic through delicate, rural areas is by implementing reservation systems for commercial operators and nonresidents at popular state parks.

At the beginning of this month, Wai’anapanapa State Park became the second state park in Hawaii to require reservations and the first to integrate commercial tours into its reservation system.

As a response to rural East Maui residents seeking a reprieve from high traffic and increased crowding, the new system will help manage traffic flow into the area, according to state Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who has been working with state Rep. Lynn DeCoite on the East Maui Reservation Project, an effort to mitigate overcrowding in East Maui after COVID-19.

“Also, and just as important, we can reduce the impact on our neighbors,” state Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks administrator Curt Cottrell said in a news release in February. “As a former resident of Hana, living right next to Wai’anapanapa, it feels good to support a process that will help my former neighbors. Quality over quantity is our new target in management.”

The Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan’s three-year vision is a “living document” that will be evaluated annually against key performance indicators, it said.

“This includes considerations around protecting our ‘aina and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture,” the plan said. “This does not, however, include deciding who can and cannot come to an island specifically or to Hawaii in general.”

The plan points out that traveling to and about the Hawaiian Islands are freedoms under federal jurisdiction and cannot be restricted by the state or the county.

Published March 4, the $108,000 plan ($40,000 for the plan itself and $68,000 for meeting facilitation and technology) was funded by HTA’s state Tourism Special Fund, derived from the transient accommodations tax.

To read the Maui Nui plan that includes Maui, Molokai and Lanai, visit www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/media/ 6860/hta-maui-action-plan.pdf.

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

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