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Vacation rental caps, other tourism reforms on the table

Council investigative group proposes ways to regulate visitor industry

Lines of people wait to board whale watch boats earlier this month at Lahaina Harbor. In the wake of growing complaints of overtourism, a Maui County Council committee is considering a number of tourism reforms, including placing a cap on transient accommodations, creating a chief of tourism management and regulating the car-sharing industry. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Most testifiers Wednesday said they support a proposal to establish a cap on transient accommodations and urged a Maui County Council committee to quickly act on the measure.

The comments came as the Maui County Council’s Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee discussed a report by its Tourism Management and Economic Development Temporary Investigative Group, which was formed amid growing complaints of overtourism on Maui.

The group is headed by budget committee Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, along with Vice Chairwoman Alice Lee, who is also chairwoman of the council, and Council Members Tamara Paltin and Shane Sinenci.

They came up with eight proposals that ranged from capping the number of transient accommodations, creating a chief of tourism management and regulating the peer-to-peer car sharing industry.

The investigative group is working toward legislation that establishes a transient accommodation limit by type and by community plan area. Currently there is a temporary moratorium on new transient accommodations on Maui after the council passed a bill in December and overrode a veto by Mayor Michael Victorino in January.

Under the bill the temporary moratorium will stay in place for two years or — depending on whichever is sooner — until legislation is enacted by the council to establish the caps.

There was no legislative action scheduled Wednesday and the committee deferred the item. Rawlins-Fernandez said the proposals would be sent to the appropriate council committees for review.

Overtourism has been a concern for years, but during the pandemic, residents were able to see what the island was like without tourists, as beaches and roads were less crowded but many visitor industry workers were left without work.

When restrictions eased and visitors eagerly surged back to Maui, overwhelmed residents voiced complaints and called on elected officials to rethink tourism.

Maui had already been setting records prior to the pandemic, hosting more than 3 million visitors in 2019, the first time it reached that mark since record-keeping began 30 years ago.

The council has proposed a number of tourism management measures, including the moratorium on new transient accommodations that also spurred the investigative group tasked with making findings and proposals relating to tourism management and economic development. The group came up with eight legislative proposals at the beginning of February, including:

• Establishing a transient accommodations cap at the number of those currently operating or legally allowed by the current Maui County Code.

• Creating a tourism management commission that would appoint the position of chief of tourism management.

• Setting green energy requirements for transient accommodations.

• Rewording the Maui Island Plan to say that permit application or permits for transient vacation accommodations would be halted if the islandwide visitor population exceeds 33 percent of the resident population.

• Regulating the peer-to-peer car sharing industry.

• Amending the Maui Island Plan to include quality-of-life indicators that are measurable.

• Amending the County Code to allow for exceptions from the transient accommodations caps for structures along the shoreline that need to be relocated and rebuilt.

• Eliminating transient vacation rentals in various districts.

On Wednesday, 20 people testified on the investigative group’s recommendations, with the majority in favor of the proposals, especially a transient accommodations cap.

Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said the organization does not agree “with every aspect of every recommendation.” However, it does approve of capping tourism accommodations, as this was in the Maui Island Plan 10 years ago and “it’s time already, it’s time.”

But Perez said the caps should be even lower than the proposal and that the numbers could be achieved by attrition. With fewer accommodation units, the quality of the accommodations could go up and potentially need more workers to be hired, Perez said.

As for concerns over the absence of construction work with no new tourist accommodations being built, Perez said the attention could turn to construction projects for residents instead.

“We need our construction workers to help our local residents,” including building infrastructure and affordable housing, Perez said.

Toral Patel of Airbnb Public Policy, Hawaii, however, said that the company is “deeply concerned by proposals that would restrict and/or eliminate transient accommodations on Maui, which could have many unintended consequences to the local economy.”

When asked by the committee what those unintended consequences could be, Patel said there could be “ripple effects” such as impacts to jobs tied to transient accommodations.

She also pointed to Airbnb’s agreement with Maui County, in which Airbnb took down more than 1,300 listings without tax map key numbers in late January to assist the county’s enforcement of its short-term rental policies.

She asked that the council give the agreements a chance to be effective before considering additional restrictions on transient accommodations.

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

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