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Bill would reserve half of all beach parking for residents

Overcrowding, COVID-19 disparity issues grow with return of tourism

The parking lot at Kamaole I Beach Park is busy Tuesday. The Maui County Council is considering proposals that would reserve at least half of all public beach access parking for residents and impose beach parking fees for visitors. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

As tourism numbers and frustrations with overcrowding continue to rise, the Maui County Council is considering measures that would reserve at least half of all public beach access parking for residents and tack on parking fees for visitors.

“For too long, residents have been asked to sacrifice their quality of life for the promise of economic benefit, but as balance was neglected, the return on investment diminished and our resources have been loved to death,” said Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who introduced both proposals. “The double standards that we have seen during this pandemic must end and equity must be established for our residents.”

Because tourists cannot be stopped from coming to Maui, efforts to manage tourism, such as implementing parking fees for nonresidents, are an “absolute necessity,” Maui resident Jordan Hocker said during public testimony at a council meeting on Tuesday.

“Not only are you taking money in from tourism that’s eroding our resources and impacting the quality of life as residents, but then you have money for a budget or potentially to pay the people who need to enforce it,” she said. “I hope you have the good talks in balance because right now a lot of us are feeling very overrun by tourism.”

Frustration in recent months has centered on the perceived lack of enforcement by the state and county against tourists who don’t follow COVID-19 distancing, face masks and other public health emergency rules.

Signs greet visitors to the parking lot of Keawakapu Beach Park Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Maui residents are still banned from gathering in large groups, school sports are shut down and graduations are forced to go virtual.

Shoreline activist Kai Nishiki testified Tuesday that allowing hundreds of tourists to crowd Wailea beaches with umbrellas in close proximity while ticketing a resident using a pop-up tent to shade keiki is just one example of inequities between tourists and residents during the pandemic.

“Maui County has been giving away access for free for far too long. Our residents are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “Our community is at a boiling point right now. Take action now in incremental ways to help our residents.”

Nishiki has been promoting a “Take Back Our Beach” rally scheduled for 7 a.m. to sunset Saturday at Wailea Beach where residents are encouraged to bring masks, beach chairs, blankets and signs to let the state and county know that it has “failed to manage tourism responsibly.”

She added Tuesday that she will volunteer for free to enforce the parking measures if approved by the council.

“Just get me a golf cart and a bullhorn and I’m on it,” Nishiki said.

Resident Jennifer McGurn, who works at Maui Economic Opportunity, testified Tuesday that she is in support of beach parking for residents and other ways to manage tourism.

“I think it’s so important that Maui stays true to its residents,” she said. “Tourism is not going to go away. It’s here. But I hope that we can find a way to better manage it and keep it the place that we all love.”

The bill on parking stalls and the issue of parking fees were both referred to the council’s Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday for an upcoming meeting, likely in July.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said items require thorough vetting, especially because enforcement is central to the proposal.

“We have to have parks (department) and police here and all the people who are actually going to implement this,” she said.

Rawlins-Fernandez said after the meeting that she envisions a beach parking program where resident vehicles will get stickers or another identification to allow access, or where parking fee machines are added, similar to Ahihi-Kina’u, that scan Hawaii driver’s licenses and prints tickets for dashboard display.

Enforcement would be funded by nonresident parking fees. Also, signs would be posted and stalls would be painted to inform visitors of rules. A local company could be contracted for enforcement, or county rangers could be expanded. Visitor vehicles in resident stalls would be towed, she added.

Maui continues to rival Oahu when it comes to visitor numbers since the reopening of tourism on Oct. 15 with the state’s Safe Travel program. Oahu, the state’s most populous island, would typically attract double the visitors to Maui on any given month prior to the pandemic.

In February, Maui recorded the highest amount of visitors the island has seen since the launch of the pre-travel testing program in the fall, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s most recent report.

Although Hawaii’s economy relies on tourism, especially on visitor-dependent Neighbor Isles, some have said the state could be doing more to manage visitors amid reopening — especially when 2019 produced record visitor arrivals to Maui County, sparking concerns of overcrowding.

“There needs to be a serious effort to manage tourism differently and better,” economist Carl Bonham, University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization executive director, said last week during a Hawaii Economic Association event. “To be honest, I’m not seeing it right now.”

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

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