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Creating a new economy with less tourism requires resolve, patience

OUR COUNTY

During 2019, more than 3 million visitors came to Maui County. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and tourism arrivals dropped below 800,000. The dip in tourism starved our economy, but we managed to survive. One unexpected gift from the pandemic was a needed break from tourism.

Now Maui County has an unprecedented opportunity to reset tourism in ways that benefit our people and environment. Most of us agree that Maui County can have tourism, but tourism can’t have Maui County. This is our home, not a theme park. We are joining many other destinations in seeking a kinder, gentler and more balanced hospitality industry.

Venice, Italy, is one of the world’s most over-visited destinations. Prior to the pandemic, this historic city welcomed about 25 million visitors a year. To provide context, Venice is about 160 square miles compared to Maui Island’s 727 square miles.

While tourism grew unchecked, Venetians found themselves priced out of their own hometown as transient vacation rentals killed off residential housing like cancer. So it’s not surprising that in 2016, residents revolted by posting anti-Airbnb leaflets around their city to urge tourists to boycott TVRs. Dublin, Barcelona and the Greek island of Santorini have since joined the anti-vacation rental movement that’s building momentum worldwide.

Like Maui, Venice enjoyed a break from tourism during the pandemic. It convinced the locals not to allow tourism to return in the same way. Venice officials are now rethinking their entire system of tourism management. According to Paola Mar, the city’s councilor for tourism, part of their plan is to lure locals back to live in the city permanently.

The mayor of Venice is in discussions about repurposing vacation rentals as university student and workforce housing, and historic buildings are now being restored as residential housing. Efforts to limit tourism numbers — including a new hefty tax on day visitors — is expected to begin this summer.

Earlier this month, hundreds of Venetians took to the streets to protest the arrival of the first cruise ship since the pandemic closed the city’s harbor. A counterprotest was organized by thousands of workers who rely upon tourism for their livelihoods who have been unemployed since the pandemic hit last spring.

Closer to home, when Maui tourism roared back, our beloved road to Hana was overrun by tourists stopping and parking anyplace they could find. Heeding the irresponsible advice of guidebooks, they regularly trespass on private property; take selfies at every waterfall, pond or natural feature; and obstruct residents and others along the way. Recently the state Department of Transportation installed multiple signs warning of higher fines for illegal stopping on Hana Highway.

I spoke with MPD about beefing up enforcement and as of June 1, officers have issued 387 parking citations along Hana Highway. At the same time, MPD needs at least 90 new recruits to fill a long-standing officer shortage. A choice must be made between enforcement of serious crime or tagging illegally parked rental cars.

I’ve also spoken with the governor about restricting access, but because Hana Highway was built with federal funds, this is not an option. And as much as I would love to tow every illegally parked vehicle, the safety concerns of groups of people without transportation in areas of spotty cellphone service must be considered.

I am considering supplementing law enforcement officers with a new category of parking enforcement officers or deploying county park rangers to issue parking violations. However, such changes would require an agreement with the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers and/or United Public Workers and a new budget allocation, so it won’t happen overnight. I am also talking to state legislators to determine what help the State of Hawaii can give.

The community’s desire for immediate change requires a rapid response if possible while considering all options. Diversifying our economy to lessen Maui County’s overdependence upon tourism will take time. Building an enduring, diversified economy will require resolve and patience. Fortunately, the pandemic has taught us that Maui County can accomplish anything with determination and unity.

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

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