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Hotel moratorium garners early support

Opponents say it will hurt jobs and pandemic recovery

The Marriott Maui Ocean Club in Kaanapali is pictured in August. A bill that proposes placing a moratorium on hotel building permits garnered early support from residents at a Maui County Council meeting on Friday, though others said it was the last thing Maui needed with the local economy reeling from the pandemic. — The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

A proposal to place a moratorium on hotel building permits is garnering early support from residents who say it will help balance an unfettered industry that reached record numbers before the pandemic.

Others, however, say the moratorium is the last thing Maui needs right now since it would limit job growth and business during a time when the local economy is reeling from the pandemic.

Introduced by Council Member Kelly King, who holds the South Maui residency seat, the proposed bill would add a new chapter to the Maui County Code, placing a moratorium on building permits for hotel development applications in the West Maui and Kihei-Makena community plan areas until both community plans are updated.

King said during a Maui County Council meeting Friday that the proposal was intended to go to committee, where it will receive thorough vetting.

Council members were split 4-4 to determine the committee to which the measure would be referred. As a result, the proposal will stay in the Clerk’s Office until the next council meeting.

A bridge leads across a pond at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali in February. A Maui County Council bill is proposing a moratorium on hotel building permits until community plans for West Maui and Kihei-Makena can be updated. — The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

King said the extra time is a good opportunity for her to update the proposal with feedback from Friday’s testimony.

“I’m looking forward to revising the bill and addressing the testifiers’ concerns about expanding beyond just hotels,” she said after the meeting.

About 10 testifiers spoke in favor of the proposal during the meeting, saying it would help bring balance among residents and visitors and limit an industry that doesn’t need more hotels.

Kihei resident David Dorn said that Maui is lacking infrastructure for locals and tourists, and the island has not kept up with tourism growth.

“They fill up all the spaces and the places we have, and now we have no more space to give,” he said.

“Rebalance our infrastructure before building more hotels,” Dorn added. “Give us a chance to catch up and bring our island back into balance.”

Scott Shapiro, a testifier who supports the moratorium, said it will help “address imbalanced tourism.”

He requested that the moratorium be expanded to any transient accommodations and that the Planning Department hold off on approving permits before the council can vote on the measure.

Another four testifiers said that the moratorium would negatively impact the economy and job opportunities for local people. They requested that it be thoroughly vetted before a decision is made.

Maui Division Director Roberto Andrion of ILWU Local 142, a union that represents many local hotel workers, said the union strongly opposes the moratorium.

The pandemic led to record unemployment and there are still thousands of workers without jobs, he said, adding that state unemployment is still hovering around 10 percent.

Hotel building projects help create jobs in the hotel industry as well as in the construction industry.

“This is the last thing Maui County should be considering,” Andrion said. “Now is not the time to limit job growth.”

Rod Antone, Maui Hotel and Lodging Association executive director, said that the hotel industry is easy to target when people think of overtourism. However, hotel rooms have decreased over the years while vacation rentals have skyrocketed.

Antone pointed to Hawaii Tourism Authority data that said there were 8,577 hotel rooms in 2000; in 2020, it was 7,251. Vacation rentals numbered 327 in 2000; in 2020, they jumped to 6,000.

“It’s kind of obvious if the hotel room numbers aren’t going up but the tourist numbers are, they’re staying somewhere and they are probably staying in the accommodations whose numbers have been going up,” Antone said.

The purpose of the bill to “temporarily maintain the status quo” cites the Maui Island Plan’s visitor-resident ratio.

“The council finds that the Maui Island Plan includes a policy calling for a daily visitor population not to exceed one-third of the resident population,” the bill says. “With a daily visitor census of nearly 70,000 and resident population of well under 150,000 in 2019, Maui dramatically exceeded the desired visitor-resident ratio.”

Maui County reached more than 3 million visitors in 2019, a record high since data keeping began about three decades ago.

In 2019, Maui visitors contributed $5.13 billion to Hawaii’s economy, according to HTA. About half the visitors stayed in hotels (54 percent), while condo (27 percent), timeshare (10 percent) and rental houses (9 percent) were also well used.

Annual hotel occupancy was 78 percent on average with an average daily hotel room rate of $400. Other visitor accommodations were booming, including timeshares, which had 94 percent occupancy and vacation rentals, which had 79 percent occupancy, HTA said.

Since the reopening of tourism in October, Hawaii visitor arrivals have continued to climb each month but have stayed well below pre-pandemic rates.

HTA’s most recent report on visitor arrivals shows that Maui had 92,608 visitors in February, a 62 percent decrease from the 234,773 arrivals recorded in February 2020.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization’s forecast for visitor arrivals projects that Hawaii will remain under 2017 levels through 2023 and 2024.

Since the reopening, though, concerns about tourism have been increasing. Residents have said high tourist volumes are returning too quickly and that visitors, whose home states are more lenient, at times disregard state and county rules on gathering limits and face mask-wearing.

A grassroots “Take Back the Beach” rally was held recently at Wailea Beach to protest the state and county’s lack of tourism management amid the pandemic. Participants alleged hotels are operating at a high capacity and “territory grabbing” — staking claim with empty umbrellas and chairs on public beaches, effectively displacing Mauians.

Residents are also planning a rally at Kaanapali Beach.

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

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