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As more tourism expected for holidays, concerns linger

Review of destination management plan continues, officials seek input

Lahaina town bustles with people on Oct. 14. Tourism officials said the outlook for the holiday travel season “looks bright,” though concerns with overcrowding and impacts to local resources persist after an influx in travel over the summer. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A tourism official said on Tuesday that the outlook for the holiday travel season in Hawaii “looks bright” as normalcy returns, the impact of the delta variant wanes and U.S. residents again start to book travel to Hawaii.

“We are pleased to see that enthusiasm for travel especially as it relates to holiday travel is on the rise,” said Jeffrey Eslinger, senior director of market insights for the Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau.

But he added that the increase will not match the high of visitors that the islands saw during the “pent-up” demand for travel in the summer.

“But we will be seeing normal travel patterns as it goes into the Thanksgiving and December holidays, similar to what we saw in 2019,” Eslinger said.

Although the pandemic continues to depress travel demand from reaching 2019 levels, leisure and business travel expectations for the remainder of the year have increased, Eslinger noted during a meeting on the future of tourism on Maui Tuesday morning.

While tourism and travel have been recovering and at some points matching pre-pandemic levels, Maui residents continue to wrestle over what to do with the effects of the visitor industry, which has been magnified by the influx of visitors earlier this year. Traffic increased along Hana Highway, restaurants were difficult to get into and places left bare during the pandemic, including beaches and scenic parks, grew packed or at times overcrowded.

During a meeting Tuesday morning hosted by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority and Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, a survey of around 30 meeting participants largely acknowledged that visitors put a strain on local infrastructure and resources.

Attendees agreed that visitors impact traffic and parking and expressed the feeling of having just too many tourists on Maui.

Participants were answering a multiple-choice question about what disadvantages and/or drawbacks they feel tourism creates for themselves and Maui residents.

The survey and meeting were part of the agencies’ ongoing work on the Destination Management Action Plan. Meetings are being held virtually this month in Maui County. Another meeting was held Tuesday night for Maui residents.

HTA published the 2021-2023 Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan in March as part of its “strategic vision and continuing efforts to manage tourism in a responsible and regenerative manner.” The plan was developed by Maui County residents in partnership with Maui County and MVCB.

The plan serves as a guide to rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism in Maui Nui. It also identifies areas of need as well as solutions for enhancing residents’ qualify of life and improving the visitor experience, according to HTA.

The virtual meetings in Maui County give updates to the plan as well as allow participants to provide comments and ask questions.

When meeting participants were asked what benefits the visitor industry provides to Maui and its residents, most responses were equally split into three areas — that the industry creates jobs that have opportunities for advancement; the industry supports and sponsors festivals, activities and sports events on island; and the visitor industry contributed to the reopening of the island’s economy to more quickly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Less than 10 percent of respondents acknowledged “there are no benefits” that the visitor industry brings to Maui.

Some of the actions already being implemented in the management plan include the reef-safe sunscreen social media campaign, the Malama Hawai’i Program and the Malama Maui County Pledge.

The Malama Hawai’i Program involves opportunities for visitors to help out in efforts such as beach cleanups and native tree planting. Some volunteers could qualify for special discounts or even a free night from a participating hotel, according to HTA.

On Maui, opportunities include cleanups with Pacific Whale Foundation and picking up debris at beaches, parks or street sides with the help of Redline Rafting in Kihei.

There are more than 90 partners statewide in the Malama program, along with 15 participating hotels in Maui and 11 Maui nonprofits, according to data provided at the meeting.

The Malama Maui County Pledge, asks visitors to respect the islands’ culture, environment and community. There is also a video that focuses on respecting Maui and its people.

When asked by a meeting participant on the types of visitors the islands would like to attract, noting the cheap airfares to Hawaii, MVCB Destination Manager Meagan DeGaia said they are seeking out those that have “high values,” not necessarily high dollar values, but someone who acts like a “world citizen” and is a steward of the place they live in. She recalled meeting a couple from California this week who was spending a day in the mud and water of a lo’i patch. DeGaia said the family was involved with restoring a river back in California.

Another action item in the plan rolled out with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is the reservations and payment system for visitors and commercial vehicles at Waianapanapa State Park in East Maui.

Alan Carpenter, DLNR assistant administrator, said capacity limits are established at the park and visitors are greeted by a local employee when they arrive.

But Carpenter said DLNR cannot “solve all of the issues outside our entrance,” in regards to parking and traffic issues along Hana Highway off of which Waianapanapa is located.

Local access is given to residents at the park at all times, he said.

“This is really just the beginning,” Carpenter said of the management efforts on Maui and statewide.

Next on the list for managing visitors is Diamond Head State Monument on Oahu, which at times can see 6,000 visitors a day, followed by Iao Valley State Monument on Maui.

Carpenter said the DLNR would like the Legislature to allow the department to spend more of the money it collects from the visitors as well as hire rangers that could help manage tourism and share the history of the state parks and the surrounding area.

Another update of the plan is expected to be given to the public in December, HTA officials said. In the meantime, the public can access:

• The Maui Destination Management Action Plan at tinyurl.com/MauiDMAP.

• The plan progress report at tinyurl.com/MauiDMAPSummer2021.

• An input survey at tinyurl.com/MauiNov2021Survey.

• Answers to questioned posed at the meeting at tinyurl.com/MauiNov2021Answers.

Lanai’s meeting will be on Nov. 9 and Molokai’s on Nov. 12. There will be two sessions on each island, with the first from 8 to 9:30 a.m. and the second from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Registration links and meeting agendas for each island are at www.hawaiitourismauthority.org/what-we-do/events/.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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