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Moratorium on hotel building permits proposed

Tensions over return of tourism continue to brew

The Westin Maui Resort & Spa, Kaanapali, is pictured in early October, shortly before the reopening of tourism in Hawaii. As tensions over tourism continue to rise, the bill before the Maui County Council is proposing a moratorium on building permits for hotels in West and South Maui until community plan updates for both areas are finished. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A Maui County Council bill is proposing to halt building permits for West and South Maui hotel development until community plans for both areas are updated.

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.

Pointing to a visitor-resident ratio that exceeds the “desired” level outlined in the Maui Island Plan, the purpose of the bill is to “temporarily maintain the status quo” until both community plans are completed.

“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,” says the bill, which is on the council’s agenda for Friday. “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.

The Grand Wailea is pictured in June, when many major hotels were shuttered during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maui County Council Member Kelly King, who holds the South Maui residency seat, is proposing to put a moratorium on building permits for hotels in South and West Maui until community plans for both areas are updated. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

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

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

The Hawaii Tourism Authority’s most recent report on visitor arrivals shows that Maui had 92,608 visitors in February, which was a 62 percent decrease from the 234,773 arrivals that were recorded in February 2020.

Oahu was down 78 percent, Kauai dropped 93.4 percent and Hawaii island was down 68.6 percent in February.

February was Maui County’s highest month for arrivals since tourism reopened Oct. 15.

After discouraging travel to Hawaii and mandating a 14-day quarantine on arrivals starting in March of 2020, the state relaxed trans-Pacific travel rules on Oct. 15 as a way to boost tourism.

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 Saturday 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.

“I call it the resort creep and the resident squeeze,” South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger said during a Monday meeting. “And I want to highlight that it’s not just the big resorts. It’s the condominium communities too.”

In the wake of the rally, Wildberger held a public talk story Monday afternoon with community activist Kai Nishiki, who organized Saturday’s rally, along with Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea General Manager Marc Bromley, whose hotel is among a handful of resorts fronting Wailea Beach.

“You’re a really influential leader in our primary economic engine at the moment and yourself and other large resorts have an opportunity to show responsible and receptive leadership right now in this pivotal moment in the future of tourism on Maui,” Nishiki said to Bromley during the meeting.

Nishiki said she hopes Bromley advocates among hotel leaders, encouraging them to the table with residents to collaborate on tourism management concerns.

Wildberger said hotels contribute $1.5 million every year to the maintenance and beautification of Wailea — including maintaining three comfort stations in Wailea Beach, Ulua Beach and Polo Beach.

“The community is very grateful for those wonderful facilities but it’s something we want to make sure isn’t an entitlement that translates to taking over real estate on the beach,” she said.

Wildberger added that resorts offered food drives during the height of the pandemic and their businesses benefit the local economy by employing residents.

Friday’s Maui County Council meeting begins at 9 a.m. To view the full agenda and the proposed moratorium on visitor accommodation development in West Maui and South Maui, visit mauicounty .us/agendas/.

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

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