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Now is the time for county to invest in a future free from overtourism

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

Maui County residents are counting on elected officials to more effectively manage tourism — by planning for a future that prioritizes community needs and by caring for our precious island resources.

Concerns about overreliance on tourism are seen in recent news stories, public opinion surveys and discussions among friends and family. While the downturn caused by COVID-19 necessitated self-reflection by government and industry leaders, many of us have been envisioning a different future for a long time.

In an interview on Hawaii Public Radio’s “The Conversation” on March 8, 2019 — early in my first term — I voiced concerns about crowded beaches and roads, strained infrastructure and visitor incursions into remote areas, causing safety risks for people and environmental damage to our ecological and cultural resources. As a legislator and concerned parent, I’ve remained committed to advocating for a reassessment of how we allocate our limited assets.

Two years ago, I introduced a bill to ban commercial recreational activity at Hanakao’o Beach Park, also known as Canoe Beach, which was enacted as an ordinance. Residents had been crowded out of their own beach, but this law protects their ability to use it for paddling and other purposes.

Last year, I voted for Resolution 20-94, establishing the Malama Maui County Pledge, asking tourists to promise to respect the islands’ people, culture and environment.

There’s a new consensus that Maui County should promote high-quality, sustainable tourism instead of constantly striving for higher numbers of arrivals, as seen in the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan (“Tourism plan focuses on quality, not quantity,” The Maui News, March 13).

The council is reviewing two pieces of legislation — the fiscal year 2022 budget and the West Maui Community Plan update — that provide an opportunity to turn collective vision into reality. The timing is critical because visitors are returning (“Visitors to Maui hit post-pandemic high in February,” The Maui News, March 29).

For more than two decades, the council has annually granted more than $3 million to the Maui Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion. Last year, following the Cost of Government Commission’s recommendation to cut the grant in its entirety, the council lowered it to $1.5 million.

This year, Mayor Michael Victorino has proposed a budget that keeps MVB funding steady at $1.5 million.

The counties have long borne the burden of supporting tourism, not only through grants for marketing, but also by providing core services that help visitors safely enjoy the islands. Maui County employs police officers, firefighters, lifeguards and professionals who design and maintain parks, roadways and other public facilities — all of which support tourism.

Yet, Hawaii counties aren’t allowed to levy hotel room taxes to recoup their tourism-related expenditures. The state collects revenue from the transient accommodations tax and returns ever-decreasing portions to the counties.

The budget session is an opportunity to invest in other community assets and be less dependent on tourism, not just by scrutinizing money spent on visitor marketing, but by evaluating all appropriations.

And, after the budget session, my committee will continue its review of the proposed new West Maui Community Plan — the first update since 1996 — which was sent to the council earlier this year after review by a citizens’ advisory committee and the Maui Planning Commission.

The draft plan is blunt about overtourism in the region:

“Growth in the tourism industry, including number of visitors, tourism development and related activities over the years has led to overcrowding at beaches, parks and other natural and cultural areas.”

According to research cited in the draft plan, Maui County is more dependent on tourism than the other counties, and West Maui was populated by more tourists than residents on typical days in 2019.

The draft plan endorses “best practices for tourism management in West Maui” and is intended to “support the community’s vision.” In West Maui and throughout the county, the community envisions a future free from overtourism.

* Tamara Paltin is chair of the Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee. She holds the County Council seat for the West Maui residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.

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