When Mayor Mike Victorino announced Maui County’s first “stay at home, work from home” order, most of us expected the COVID-induced emergency rules would be lifted after a few weeks, maybe six at the most. By the end of April, when the order was extended, glimmers of silver linings softened our disappointment and unease.
All around us, on land and at sea, nature celebrated the sudden absence of human traffic. Both the ocean and the sky seem a deeper, richer shade of blue. “At least the island is happy,” mused one kamaaina.
Another friend, a more recent resident, expressed gratitude for the glimpse into what Maui was like before his arrival in the 1980s. . . .
In the summer of 1970, I was 12 years old, more excited about the opening of Maui’s first McDonald’s restaurant on Puunene Avenue than Jimi Hendrix rocking out in an Olinda pasture. Both events took place in July; Hendrix died only a couple of months after the Rainbow Bridge concert.
Also that year, the county launched a promotional campaign to entice Japanese tourists to our shores, aided by Maui-born sumotori Jesse Kuhaulua, revered as Takamiyama in Japan. The Valley Isle had already garnered a reputation among America’s rich and famous. Fifty years ago, Marlon Brando brought his family to Hana, Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim visited the island, and the Lahaina Yacht Club counted Peter Fonda, Jason Robards Jr. and Dick Smothers among its members. Actually, Maui had been a favorite destination for Hollywood’s elite since the days of trans-Pacific luxury liners. Some, like Carmen Miranda and Frank Sinatra, combined business with pleasure, performing for local audiences; others, including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, enjoyed family time at our resorts.
The year 1970 saw the first of Kaanapali’s Sugar Cane Train passenger rides and the last Lahaina Whaling Spree. The annual spree was a three-day festival of reenactments, exhibits and entertainment celebrating the town’s history as a major port of call for the whaling ships of the mid-1800s. The beard contest was perhaps the biggest attraction, not counting the lure of hard partying like sailors on shore leave. Sadly, the event grew too large, too fast. Rowdy celebrants wore out their welcome fairly quickly, and the festival was shelved after eight years.
I dimly remember attending one of those early sprees with my uncle and aunt and being overwhelmed by the raucous revelry. I had never seen so many haoles in one place, having so much fun. The only other time I had come into direct contact with tourists was the time my cousin and I strung a few plumeria lei and took them to Hale Ho’ike’ike, the Bailey House Museum. The kindly docent let us greet the visitors and sell our lei for fifty cents each. For an additional dollar, we threw in a personal guided tour of the museum.
Between 1970 and 1990, Maui’s population more than doubled, from 38,691 to 91,361. By 1990, our annual visitor count was up to 2 million. Last year, we hit the 3 million mark. Obviously, we won’t come close to that this year. The pandemic has sparked more urgent conversations about managing the industry that so many of us have come to rely on.
It might surprise you to learn that in 1970 and even a few years earlier, a few folks were already sounding the alarm. In his remarks at a high school commencement ceremony, then-Lieutenant Governor Tom Gill urged graduates to “control tourism.” Other officials and community leaders warned against jumping on the visitor bandwagon too hastily. “Don’t become another Waikiki,” they cautioned. We didn’t, but our success as a high-quality alternative to the concrete jungle has turned around and bit us. Hard.
Today, as I drive by thousands of idle rental cars and empty hotels, I’m reminded of the way I viewed visitors 50 years ago. Whenever I’d spot the occasional tour bus lumbering up Kaahumanu Avenue or Iao Valley Road, I’d wave excitedly from the back window of my parents’ car. It’s been five months since I’ve hosted a Polynesian revue or Friday Town Party. I miss welcoming people to my home and sharing the beauty of our island culture.
At least the island is happy.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.