Case: Rental car cap, hotel room freeze may mitigate overtourism

Maui County leaders already working on the proposals

Wailea Beach is shown in early August. State and federal officials at the Hawaii Economic Association’s annual conference last week discussed the direction of the state in the wake of the pandemic, including the future of the economy and tourism. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Prior to the pandemic, a certain kind of tourism was already sickening Aloha State residents, according to Hawaii’s U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

“Even before COVID-19, public support for tourism, at least a brand of tourism that has been practiced as of late, was plummeting,” he said last week at the Hawaii Economic Association’s annual conference. “Everybody was just getting sick of it — of overtourism.”

The Oahu congressman, who serves on the House Committee on Appropriations that regulates federal discretionary spending, was the keynote speaker for the 2021 conference — titled “COVID-19: What Have We Learned? Where Do We Go From Here?” — held via Zoom on Thursday and Friday.

Case offered “tough” approaches for mitigating overtourism, including no expansion of rooms for existing hotels and resorts, along with caps on available rental vehicles.

“Can we set a maximum ceiling on availability of rental cars in our state?” he asked.

Rental cars sit parked in Central Maui in September. Some lawmakers have expressed support for a cap on rental cars in each county, though whether there’s enough political will to push for the changes remains to be seen.

Maui County Council members via state and county measures have been working on both of these items. But whether there’s enough political will to change the course of overcrowding from tourism remains to be seen.

Council Member Tamara Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat, has been working on proposals for the county’s state legislative package that would authorize each council to regulate the number of rental cars in respective jurisdictions.

The Hawaii State Association of Counties legislative package has eight state bills, including House Bill 165 and Senate Bill 438 proposed by Paltin to empower the county councils to regulate the number of rental cars in each county.

Paltin on Wednesday, though, said that the state receives a lot of money from the rental car industry and it would take “a groundswell of people across the state of people reaching out to their legislators” for actual changes to be made.

“As far as the rental car cap, I keep putting it out there but I’m not super hopeful of the state legislators unless the regular people all get out there and contact the state folks when it goes through,” she said. “Because rental cars are such a big industry for the state. They get money and all that and they don’t have to deal with the effects.”

Kahului’s airport is the second busiest in the state when it comes to passenger volume, but its rental car industry generates the most funds in all of Hawaii, the state Department of Transportation told The Maui News in 2019, before the pandemic hit and thousands of rental cars sat idle in Central Maui fields.

Paltin said she’s also working on a proposal for a tiered car registration program, similar to tiered property tax rates that have been enacted countywide. If a person is registering one to five cars, a standard rate would be applied. However, if registering five to 20 — or greater than 20 — higher rates would be collected.

“If you’re registering five to 20 cars, you are already having a greater impact on our road infrastructure,” she said.

Meanwhile, after months of strong Maui resident support during council committee and regular meetings, a proposal to place a temporary halt on building permits for hotels, resorts and other vacation rentals is continuing to move through local legislative bodies.

A Planning Department version of the bill, proposed by Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, was recently approved by the Maui Planning Commission. It will now be heard by council committee.

Tourism generations ago was a growth economy and remains a growth economy to this day, Case said.

Record highs of more than 10 million visitors flocked to the Aloha State in 2019, including more than 3 million to Maui County, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

In recent years, tourism at times became “intrusive,” “extractive,” “disruptive” and “unsustainable,” Case said, adding that COVID-19 can be an opportunity to change course.

“There is such a strong temptation to drift into pre-COVID world — even if that path isn’t a sustainable one,” he said. “We all have to fight against this…I don’t think that will be good for us now or into the future.”

Aside from rental car caps and prohibiting visitor accommodations to increase rooms, Case suggested that no additional land would be classified for hotels and resorts; a “true” crackdown on illegal vacation rentals, including ensuring that visitor rooms aren’t expanding into residential areas; refusing to build more airport gates because the demand is being generated by increased tourism not by residents; and cultivating more reservation systems that set time aside for residents in state parks and other areas.

“If we think through those kinds of areas, we might come up with some surprising decisions for ourselves that might work,” he said. “But these are choices.”

After travel rules were relaxed about a year ago to reboot the visitor industry, tourism rebounded stronger than anticipated, especially for Maui County, whose typically robust domestic arrivals hit shorelines quickly due to pent-up savings and demand. Maui’s July domestic arrivals set a new all-time high.

Neighbor Islands have a greater reliance on the tourism industry but resident sentiments about the industry are the most negative on Kauai and Maui, according to recent Hawaii Tourism Authority surveys cited during the conference.

“Tourism depends on public support — that’s why we market to the world,” Case said. “It’s not just our scenery, it’s us. If ‘us’ are not happy, that doesn’t make for a very happy tourism industry.”

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


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