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Visitor accommodations moratorium offers chance to rethink tourism

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

In recent years, consensus has grown that Maui County’s visitor industry has been in a state of imbalance.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily stemmed the influx of tourists, provided a glimpse of what our island home might look like if untethered from the industry. Our overreliance on tourism was revealed with the onset of the pandemic as our county faced the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

This pause in visitor arrivals also highlighted the benefits of a break from tourism and gave us a taste of Maui Nui of decades past with uncrowded beaches, calm traffic and recovering ecosystems.

While tourism provides benefits, such as jobs and economic opportunity, the industry’s growth has caused the visitor population to exceed the guidance of our Countywide Policy Plan. This is the paradox we face charting our course toward economic recovery.

We are now in a unique position where we can either choose to resume business as usual — which resulted in consistent record-breaking visitor numbers but diminishing economic returns, social unrest and ecological stress — or we can seize this opportunity to rethink and reimagine our relationship to tourism.

I believe that this is the time to act toward a new vision of tourism — for the health of our fragile island ecosystem, to address the climate emergency and to protect the quality of life for residents.

For this reason, I have introduced a bill to propose a moratorium on new visitor accommodations development. This moratorium will allow communities time to determine, for themselves, the role they would like the visitor industry to play going forward.

As currently written, the moratorium would halt the approval of building permits for new visitor accommodations — including hotels, resorts, timeshares, short-term rental homes, bed and breakfast homes and transient vacation rentals — in West and South Maui for up to two years or when the applicable community plan update is complete. With community plans more than 20 years old, it is necessary put a hold on new visitor accommodations development until the updated vision for these communities is deliberated among citizens and approved by the council.

This moratorium is not intended to last forever, and it is not targeted at existing accommodations and hospitality workers. In fact, it follows a trend that has been documented by the visitor industry itself.

Last year, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority found that increasing percentages of residents now view the tourism industry as negatively impactful to themselves and their families. HTA’s Destination Management Action Plan for Maui, released in March, acknowledged this and set a goal to “rebuild, redefine and reset the direction of tourism.”

I am appreciative of the industry’s stated devotion to “regenerative tourism,” which seeks to restore the harm done by tourism in the past. In February, I introduced Resolution 21-18, “Expressing Support for Sustainable Tourism, Emphasizing Quality Over Quantity,” which was adopted unanimously by the council.

However, industry statements and council resolutions are not enough to change tourism’s course on their own. Since adoption, hotels have continued to expand, and Maui’s domestic visitor count is now on par with the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

Now is the time for action. A moratorium on the development of new visitor accommodations is one action that will place a needed pause on this expanding industry to allow communities the opportunity to envision what tourism should look like moving forward.

It will allow us to plan and act thoughtfully, together, toward a future that protects the people, culture and environment of Maui Nui. The Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee received helpful testimony from many residents on Wednesday and is poised to vote on the moratorium on Tuesday.

For more information, including instructions on testifying via the eComment system, please visit mauicounty.us or contact me at Kelly.King@mauicounty.us.

* Kelly Takaya King is chair of the Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee. She holds the council seat for the South 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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