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Some ideas for solving tourism issue are beyond our control

OUR COUNTY

Imagine expecting a couple of guests for 6 o’clock dinner at your house. They arrive two hours early with four friends in tow. Without sufficient time to prepare for their arrival, you can’t properly accommodate them.

Spring break felt a lot like that to many

people in our community. Although we knew visitors would return to Maui after the pandemic, few residents expected so many to arrive so soon. The factors that drove the sudden influx were cheap airfares, pent-up demand and Hawaii’s reputation as a safe haven from COVID-19.

After one year of open beaches, minimal traffic and reliving Maui’s “good old days,” the arrival of so many visitors at once came as a shock. Rigorous COVID-19 travel requirements, a rental car shortage, reduced restaurant capacity and inadequate staffing everywhere fueled an atmosphere of stress for all.

Local residents wonder aloud if something can be done to restrict tourism numbers. The Maui Island Plan includes a policy that establishes a daily visitor population not to exceed one-third of our resident population. The desire to better manage tourism is generating suggestions like limiting Mainland flights or capping the number people who can visit Maui at any given time. However, Hawaii is a state and such actions are prohibited under the U.S. Constitution. These things are outside of our control.

Our yearlong respite from tourism has been buffered by food distributions, relief payments, unemployment checks and stimulus funds. Without an urgent need for a paycheck, local residents remained focused on the health and safety of their extended ‘ohana.

We all know that the unemployment and relief checks will stop coming soon. The small locally owned businesses that kept us going during the pandemic need a functional economy to survive. And so do we. At the same time, Maui County residents are understandably hesitant to flip the tourism switch back to “full steam ahead.”

Practically speaking, the fastest route to Maui County’s economic recovery is through the hospitality industry. We have the destination, the market, the know-how, the infrastructure and the trained workforce. And realistically, we must satisfy our immediate needs before we can accomplish our long-term goals to diversify our economy to reduce our dependence on tourism.

Recently there has been talk of a moratorium on issuing building permits for new visitor accommodations. While I agree we don’t need more visitor accommodations now, it’s important to understand that Maui has added just 3,000 new hotel units over the past 30 years.

The recent growth in tourist accommodations has mostly been driven by a proliferation of transient vacation rentals. The Maui County Code allows for some transient vacation rentals in apartment-zoned areas and regulates permits for short-term rental homes and owner-operated bed-and-breakfast businesses. These things are within our control.

Our Department of Planning has contracted with a web-based investigation service to identify homeowners who are operating unpermitted vacation rentals. The company uses technology to “crawl” websites that list such rentals. So far this year, the company has identified more than 100 Maui properties that are not in compliance.

But there are limits to such cybersleuthing. It is difficult to prove illegal rental activity without a posted online rate. Each year the department receives hundreds of complaints from residents who suspect illegal rentals are operating in their neighborhoods. The county investigates, but there are rogue owners who have figured out how to sidestep their inquiries. Without proof, it is difficult to meet the legal standard for enforcement.

Changing and revising outdated zoning ordinances, strengthening and enforcing existing regulations and laws, and cracking down on those who profit illegally from our reputation as a world-class destination are the obvious next steps.

However, we must anticipate that such action will be met with well-organized opposition from offshore investors with political know-how. We know this because we’ve seen it before here and in other places. To succeed, Maui Nui’s local residents must show up and speak up.

By coming together as a community, as we have during the pandemic, we can voice our opposition to repurposing more residential housing to be used as hotel rooms. We must also work together to strengthen laws and regulations that prohibit illegal transient vacation rentals so they can be enforced.

By working together, we can solve this tourism dilemma.

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

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