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Bill would pause development of visitor lodgings islandwide

Influx of visitors anticipated next month as air travel spikes

The Maui Beach Hotel in Kahului is pictured in February 2019. With visitor arrivals to Maui fast approaching pre-pandemic levels, the Maui County Council had been mulling a bill that would place a moratorium on building permits for new visitor accommodations in the tourism hotspots of West and South Maui. However, a new bill is now proposing to extend that moratorium islandwide. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

As Maui braces for an anticipated influx of visitors next month, residents voiced their support for a newly proposed moratorium on visitor accommodations that would extend to the entire island of Maui.

Unlike other counties in Hawaii and due to a strong U.S. visitor market, Maui is fast approaching its pre-pandemic levels of tourism, which hit a record high of 3 million in 2019.

Next month, Maui is anticipated to have about 64,000 more air seats than it did in July 2019, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

The new bill comes on the heels of another proposed moratorium that would pause visitor accommodation development in West and in South Maui until their community plans are updated, or in two years, whichever is sooner. The latter was recommended for approval by committee last week and is now heading to the full council for first reading.

Introduced by Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez at the Maui County Council’s Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee meeting on Wednesday, the new proposal would maintain the number of current tourist accommodation units until the council passes legislation implementing recommendations presented by a council-established Tourism Management Temporary Investigative Group, or in two years, whichever is sooner.

“If someone was wounded and started to bleed out, would we allow the person to lose pints of blood while we talked about how to heal the wound?” asked Rawlins-Fernandez. “No — that would be ridiculous. This moratorium is intended to stop the bleeding while we figure out how to heal the wound.”

Members of the public echoed scores of other testifiers at recent committee meetings on the subject of placing a moratorium on visitor accommodations development. Many residents Wednesday called for relief from the impacts of overtourism such as overcrowding, depleting natural resources, traffic woes and other concerns.

“Surveys from HTA and local media in the last year show that residents overwhelmingly agree pre-pandemic levels of tourism were too high,” said Lahaina resident Amber Coontz, a part-time public school teacher and a part-time restaurant employee. “Despite claims from government officials about ‘regenerative/responsible tourism,’ Maui is already back to pre-pandemic visitor numbers.”

Madolin Wells of Kihei also supported the moratorium.

“The destruction of our local ecosystems, faltering infrastructure, negative impact on residents and lack of enough decent-paying jobs — all are urgent factors that must be addressed,” she said. “It isn’t possible to do so without a pause in new resort building.”

Industry officials, though, such as Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawai’i Lodging & Tourism Association, said visitor accommodations were among the most severely impacted during pandemic shutdowns and need the economic recovery.

“At its core, this proposed measure unfairly discriminates against a single industry that consistently contributes millions of dollars each year in state and county revenues,” he wrote in testimony.

Opponents to the moratorium say hotel and construction jobs will be negatively impacted. They also say that limiting hotels and other permitted visitor accommodations will lead to a spike in illegal short-term vacation rentals.

“One of the things that may be an unintended consequence of a bill like this or the previous one is the proliferation of illegal rentals,” said county Managing Director Sandy Baz. “We don’t want that.”

Baz said that while the mayor does not support the current bill or the previous one, the administration supports the discussion of better ways to manage tourism moving forward.

“As one of the testifiers correctly stated, this isn’t just a land use issue that the County Council or the administration have control over,” Baz said. “The number of airline seats that are supposed to be coming in July is actually significantly higher than 2019 numbers. That is a huge concern for the administration and should be for the council as well.”

“But that’s not something we have control over,” he added. “We need to truly look at what we can control and how to address those things.”

He referenced efforts to foster visitor education and manage traffic by increasing signage.

Committee Chairwoman Kelly King, who introduced the first proposed moratorium, said that action to decrease tourism — not education of existing tourists — is needed at this stage.

“I haven’t seen a single person testifying against this bill who is not part of an association that is trying to grow,” she said. “All of the residents that have come out have been supporting the moratorium because they’re frankly tired of all these people on the island and they don’t see a personal benefit.”

With the exception of January, visitor arrivals have been spiking month over month since the reopening of tourism in October. The Valley Isle in April reached 178,105 arrivals, which is a little more than 70 percent of the historic high for the month — 249,076 set in 2019, according to a HTA report released last week.

There are 344,935 total nonstop seats scheduled to Kahului Airport for July (though the actual number of bookings won’t be available until the end of the month). During the same month in 2019, there were 281,408 air seats, according to HTA.

Driven by the strong U.S. Mainland travel market, Maui County is poised to reach record pre-pandemic tourism numbers this summer, according to University of Hawai’i Economic Research Organization Executive Director Carl Bonham.

International travel, largely shut down, usually books up locations on Oahu and on Hawaii island. Kauai had the most stringent rules in the state and visitor numbers had been subdued until county mandates were relaxed in April.

During the meeting, Rawlins-Fernandez called the anticipated influx of airline seats in July “incredibly alarming.”

Both she and King said the intention of the two moratorium measures is for dual passage at the full council. While King’s bill has a faster route for possible approval, Rawlins-Fernandez’s measure would have to first go through the Maui Planning Commission since it would impact Maui island only.

Rawlins-Fernandez said the full council may take action June 18 to send the newest version of the bill to the commission. From there, the panel has until Sept. 7 to take it up and schedule a public hearing. It would then head back to council for first and second reading.

For information and to view the bill and testimonies, visit mauicounty.granicusideas.com/meetings/1337-climate-action-resilience-and-environment-committee-on-2021-06-02-9-00-am/agenda _ items.

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

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