Sustainability drives talks on reforming visitor industry
Panelists draw on lessons from other places popular with tourists
While local leaders have different ideas of how tourism should look moving forward, many agree on one thing — Maui is overwhelmed.
“It’s just too many tourists, overcrowding everywhere, on the reefs, the roads, the store, too many, just too many,” said Dr. Genesis Young, chairman of the Sustainable Tourism Subcommittee of the volunteer Climate Action Advisory Committee.
For a year, Maui residents “had our places back,” as COVID-19 shut down travel and cleared out beaches and roads. Free from the crowds, community members returned to places they hadn’t been in years.
“I saw people fishing on Kaanapali Beach,” said Ekolu Lindsey, president of Maui Cultural Lands and co-founder of Polanui Hiu. “I asked the lady, ‘when was the last time you fished there at Kaanapali Beach?’ She said, ’40 years ago.’ “
“Now that we got our places back, we welcome to share them, but we don’t like being crowded out,” Lindsey added.
Young, Lindsey and Orion Cruz, a Maui attorney who worked with the government of Palau on its tourism issues, participated in a virtual town hall meeting Monday evening on sustainable and regenerative tourism, hosted by Maui County Council Member Kelly King, the chairwoman of the council’s Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee.
King said Monday’s meeting was the first in a series of town halls on how to address the impacts of tourism on the island, all leading up to a Sustainable Tourism Summit, which has yet to be set, but will bring together stakeholders including tourism industry and legal advisers.
“The community wants action to ensure a future for the visitor industry that protects the people, culture and environment of Maui Nui,” King said in a news release.
In recent months, the council has been proposing a number of measures aimed at controlling Maui’s surging visitor numbers. King has a bill before the council that would place a moratorium on building permits for hotels and other visitor accommodations in South and West Maui until community plans for both areas are updated or two years have passed, whichever is sooner. It passed first reading by the council on Friday and has a final reading scheduled for July 2. Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez is proposing a similar bill, along with a measure that would reserve half of all public beach parking for residents and charge visitors a fee.
Many residents and officials have seen the pandemic as a chance to reevaluate the visitor industry, and Hawaii isn’t the only island community having the discussion.
Cruz, an international associate with Defenders of Wildlife and former legal counsel to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism of the Republic of Palau, explained how the archipelago of hundreds of islands in the Western Pacific handles its visitors, including getting ecologically minded people to visit.
Measures included adding a $100 Palau Pristine Paradise Environmental Fee to every international airline ticket into the country and having tourists signing the “Palau Pledge” in passports that reminds visitors to act in an “ecologically and culturally responsible way,” according to the pledge’s website. A movie on the flight also reflects the pledge.
“This hundred dollars supports the country in a variety of ways but a substantial portion goes to fund Palau’s protected areas network, which is kind of like their national park system,” Cruz said. “The collection of this fee means that every tourist in Palau starts off their trip by supporting environmental conservation in the country.”
Palau also has “the world’s strictest national sunscreen standard,” Cruz said. It is prohibited to import, distribute, sell and manufacture reef-toxic sunscreen; only mineral sunscreens that exclusively list zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients are allowed in Palau.
“You might think this is unnecessarily strict, but what Palau did was adopt a precautionary approach to sunscreen pollution,” he said.
Palau’s hotel gift shop does not give out plastic bags, and there are no disposable drinkware or toiletries, Cruz said. There are also volunteer opportunities for visitors, and tourism activity organizers stress best practices and care for the environment.
Cruz pointed to the large increase in visitors around 2015 and 2016 that sparked Palau’s move toward sustainable tourism.
“That dramatic increase year on year, I think really started to show people the downsides of tourism,” including the ecological impacts and negative interactions with tourists, he said.
Hawaii has also grown increasingly concerned about the impact of tourism on the local environment. Young pointed to a study by Dr. Tawn Keeney of Hawaii island that found that in 2019, air travel in Hawaii generated 18 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. In comparison, Young said the study showed all emissions from ground transportation in the islands reached 4 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019.
Like Palau, Hawaii has taken steps to try to protect its land and waters, including passing a ban on reef-toxic sunscreen that went into effect this year. Maui County also approved a ban on most single-use plastics that will go into effect in 2022. Officials have launched video education campaigns and a Malama Maui County Pledge urging visitors to respect the environment.
However, the state continues to struggle with growing visitor numbers.
“Over the years we let tourism get out of hand,” Lindsey said. “It was brought in to supplement the agricultural industry and we nurtured that child we call tourism into a spoiled adult.”
Many models of tourism were designed to control the numbers, but he feels they were not effective, simply by looking at places like the bustling Front Street.
Lindsey said visitors and even residents have to process Hawaiian values, like kupono, to be honest with yourself and the people around you; malama, to take care and learn responsibility; and kokua, to help without expectations. And, “aloha should be automatic,” he said.
The problem, Lindsey said, is that economics has taken priority over protecting Native Hawaiian cultural resources.
“I was hoping to offer solutions today. . . . I feel the solution lies in each and every one of us,” he said.
While the “Malama Hawaii” program by the Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is “a good start,” Lindsey added that “there needs to be some tweaking,” such as offering more incentives to visitors “to give back to the community.”
The program, which promotes respecting the Hawaiian culture and the environment, runs ads on social, digital and video platforms. It also includes industry partners and community organizations offering volunteer opportunities on the island, from reforestation projects and tree planting to self-directed beach cleanups and Hawaiian quilting sessions, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Incentives include a free hotel night.
Lindsey said that local organizations can offer that connection to the island and a way for residents and visitors alike to process and learn about Hawaiian values and help the environment. However, the government also needs to provide incentives for visitors and assist local organizations and businesses to create a model.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.