Let’s reinvent tourism to benefit both Maui residents and visitors


Last week, a group of Maui residents gathered peacefully on Wailea Beach to remind tourism leaders that aloha goes both ways. “Take Back the Beach” participants spoke out against the illegal practice of “pre-setting” chairs and umbrellas, effectively crowding locals out of prime beaches. Nobody has the right to limit public enjoyment of our beaches because in Hawaii, every beach belongs to everyone.

The week prior, Maui County Council Vice-Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez introduced a bill proposing that Maui County reserve a percentage of parking spaces at beach parks for residents and that visitors should pay for parking. It’s a reasonable suggestion and I support this initiative.

Several months ago, state Sen. Kalani English and Rep. Lynn DeCoite began working on a plan to better manage Hana-bound traffic. During the pandemic-related tourism pause, we remembered what a trip to Hana was like back in the day. And we liked it.

The pandemic forced us to slow down and pay attention to our daily lives. We had a chance to relive a time before industrial-sized tourism came to Maui. Our residents concluded that an ever-increasing number of tourists is not wanted here.

The recent “spring break” visitor surge confirmed it. With COVID-19 still spreading across the nation, the CDC still advises Americans to postpone unnecessary travel. Yet thousands of tourists, lured by obscenely cheap airfares, still arrived at Kahului Airport. Distressed by the bad behavior of some of these visitors, concerned citizens contacted my office asking me to “close the airport” or “limit the volume of tourists” coming into Maui County.

When statehood came to Hawaii in 1959, we became subject to United States law, including the constitutional right of every American to travel freely between states. Unfortunately, neither I nor Gov. David Ige have the authority to limit flights into Maui County or the state of Hawaii. Similarly, we cannot influence the price of airfares. When a carrier charges $99 for a flight between California and Maui, we are legally required to clear that aircraft to land at Kahului Airport.

The same principle applies to COVID-19 testing. Every American has the right to travel to Hawaii and, in accordance with CDC guidance, quarantine for 10 days upon arrival. Our state can establish criteria to exempt travelers from quarantine, including pre-flight and/or post-arrival test requirements. However, travelers can legally refuse to be tested and choose to quarantine at their own expense instead.

Curbing overtourism and changing the nature of our visitor industry can’t be done by enacting new laws. But it can be done through cooperation and collaboration between the public and private sector while understanding we may share different measurements for success.

We are fortunate that our visitor industry has taken the first step with the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan. Each community has established its own plan and identified those responsible for reforming the future of tourism.

The key word here is “action.” The industry has committed to taking specific actions to make this plan a reality.

For Maui Nui, that includes educating visitors about safe and respectful travel, establishing and funding programs to protect Maui’s environment, understanding and respecting our residents and continuing cultural education that perpetuates our shared values. Each island community challenges the industry to contribute to the environment and the community, more than it takes.

Like it or not, the majority of Maui County residents rely on dollars generated by tourism either directly or indirectly. It supports our families, our farmers and our small businesses. Tourism will always play a dominant role in our county’s economy, even as we work toward more economic diversification.

But we can always do better. As we recover from the economic wreckage of COVID-19, we have a rare opportunity to reinvent tourism in a way that benefits residents and visitors alike. Let’s return to the true meaning of hospitality — the relationship between guest and host. We ask the visitor industry to remember that Maui County is first and foremost a community. We ask our community to remember that most visitors want to do the right thing. Let’s restore that balance for everyone’s benefit.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government.


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