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Budget panel cuts Visitors Bureau funding

$500,000 would go to tourism management grants instead

With officials often emphasizing “quality over quantity” when it come to tourism, a sign questions “Where’s the quality?” during a “Take Back the Beach” rally at Wailea Beach on April 11. In response to long-brewing concerns about overtourism, the Maui County Council’s budget committee is proposing to reduce funding to the Maui Visitors Bureau. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Saying they want to see more tourism management and “not more promotion” of the island, Maui County Council members are transferring county funding from the Maui Visitors Bureau and putting some of the money toward tourism management grants.

The Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee voted 8-0 this week to reduce the $1.5 million grant for the bureau in Mayor Michael Victorino’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget and instead set aside $500,000 for tourism management grants that would be overseen by the mayor’s Office of Economic Development, according to the Office of Council Services. There are no conditions on who the grant recipient could be.

The committee is still reviewing the budget and will produce its own version that will be subject to full council and final mayoral review. Until then, nothing is set in stone.

Released in March, Victorino’s budget came to nearly $829 million, about $6 million higher than the current approved budget of $822.6 million. While his capital improvement projects proposal is up about $20 million, the mayor cut the operating budget by about $13.2 million, keeping operational spending flat due to the pandemic’s economic impact.

Victorino’s budget allocated $1.5 million for the Maui Visitors Bureau, with a condition that up to $200,000 be used to educate visitors on cultural and environmental issues as well as disaster preparedness.

The proposed cut comes as Maui residents have voiced growing frustrations over what they see as a lack of tourism management. After months of empty roads and beaches, the recent surge of visitors has felt overwhelming to many residents, who point out that the island is still under COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision to move the funding from MVB was the committee “putting words into action,” Committee Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez said in an email on Friday. It also sent the message “that we do not want to go back to business as usual, to the overwhelming pre-pandemic numbers and that we need management, not more promotion.”

“For years, we have been told that advertising is necessary to compete with other popular tourist destinations,” said Rawlins-Fernandez, “but what we have learned instead during this pandemic is that cheap airfare alone will result in an overwhelming number of low budget tourists, and that in order to attract the tourists that contribute more to Maui County, we don’t need to invest in promotion, we need to protect our home from being overcrowded again, which is ultimately a win-win for both our residents’ quality of life and the tourism industry itself.”

But Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said she thinks the reduction was “rather drastic.”

“I would have preferred a more gradual cut with more discussion on both sides,” Lee said in an email Thursday.

Until she heard other council members’ concerns, Lee said she initially considered retaining $200,000 for MVB’s visitor education.

“However, I believe that MVB has the ability to work with their wide network of resources to make up for some of those reductions,” said Lee, who eventually voted in favor of the cuts, with reservations.

A longtime council member who recently returned to office, Lee said that even in the early ’90s “it was already evident” that the county was overreliant on tourism, but there was still a rather strong agricultural industry to offset some of that dependence.

She said MVB has recognized the danger that an overabundance of visitors can cause and had sought to attract the free-and-independent tourist demographic instead of larger groups. MVB “also added a cultural component to their messaging to emphasize the importance to respect the culture,” Lee said. However, over time, demand spurred by cheap air fares, additional flights to Maui and a rapid rise in short-term rentals led to more tourism.

“The MVB cannot be solely expected to halt the exponential growth of visitors,” Lee said. “Today’s council sees their role as doing their part to manage and coordinate messaging and activities with the industry so that the visitors are more informed and respectful of our community and our residents.”

Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said while it is “unfortunate” that the cut comes as the island attempts to recover from “the pandemic’s devastating economic impacts,” it did not come as a surprise, considering the steady reductions in tourism funding over the past three years.

In 2018, the county’s grant to MVB was $4 million, the highest amount given to any county visitors bureau in the state. In 2019, the council pared that to $3 million. Even then, it was still the most allotted to a visitors bureau, according to a Maui News review of other counties in 2020.

Last year, the council adopted a $1.5 million appropriation for MVB in the fiscal year 2021 budget, with $200,000 of that to go toward visitor education. Victorino’s budget for fiscal 2021 had originally proposed $3.5 million for MVB.

Duong said that the proposed cut will make it more difficult for officials to follow up on the success of the ongoing Kuleana campaign, which educates visitors on do’s and don’ts; the Malama Hawaii program, which encourages visitors to volunteer and give back; and the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan visitor education programs.

The Maui Nui plan has been put together and implemented by Maui County staff, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and MVB, along with Maui, Lanai and Molokai community members, she said.

Duong said that the bureau will wait to see what the tourism management grant criteria entail before deciding whether to apply for the $500,000.

“We are hopeful that we can play a part going forward in continuing the progress that had been started in the tourism management area,” Duong said.

Once the committee produces its version of the budget, the proposal will move on to the full council. A first reading of the budget is set for the May 21 council meeting, with second and final reading scheduled for June 4.

The new fiscal year begins July 1.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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