Moratorium bill didn’t address the real problem: Vacation rentals
We are all frustrated about the recent arrival of too many visitors too soon. The pandemic shut down our hospitality industry overnight and it feels like it bounced back just as suddenly. One of the best things about our community is our shared passion for keeping Maui County special, but we don’t always agree on how to do that.
Earlier this week I vetoed Bill 60, which called for a moratorium on new building permits for visitor accommodations in West and South Maui. I appreciate the good intentions behind this bill, but it won’t solve our problem. It will have unintended and unwanted consequences and it is legally flawed. If Bill 60 passes into law, the County of Maui will be vulnerable to lengthy, costly litigation that will hinder our future options.
I know a regional hotel construction moratorium sounds good on the surface, but let’s examine the dynamics behind our recent visitor surge.
Maui is experiencing a “perfect storm.” It is the result of pent-up demand following a year of public health restrictions and travel bans. Other factors include unusually cheap airfares, travelers flush with government stimulus money and international destinations that remain closed. Domestic travelers are also choosing Hawaii as a refuge from the risks of COVID-19. Industry officials are predicting a busy remainder of the summer and forecasting more usual conditions after Labor Day.
Bill 60 targets resort hotels, but according to Hawaii economist Paul Brewbaker, Maui’s hotel room count increased by just 3,000 over the past 30 years. During that same time, Maui’s annual visitor arrivals have ballooned by almost 1 million — from 2.1 million in 1991 to 3.07 million in 2019. Most of these visitors did not stay in resort hotels.
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Maui had 21,294 lodging units in 2019, including 7,295 hotel units, 5,749 vacation rental units, 4,334 condo hotel units and 3,655 timeshare units. There were also 136 bed and breakfast units as well as 62 hostel units, 15 apartment/hotel units and 48 units in other categories.
Since 1991, Maui has seen explosive growth of both legal and illegal transient vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. Houses intended for residents are steadily converting into short-term vacation rentals. As more offshore investors get into the transient vacation rental business, tourism continues to spread into our neighborhoods. Some of these investors go through the required permitting process while others do not. Either way, our local people lose and that must change. Bill 60 will not solve this problem.
A draft bill attached to Resolution 21-98 is a more wide-ranging and legally defensible initiative pending before the Maui Planning Commission. In addition to hotels and timeshares, this bill includes regulations to pause new transient vacation rentals, unlike Bill 60.
While this bill is moving through the process, my administration is taking immediate action. Next week I will sign agreements with Airbnb and Expedia (VRBO’s parent company), to help the county better enforce existing vacation rental laws. This agreement will improve our ability to track and regulate vacation rentals. It will also help to ensure that Maui County residents get the tax benefits of legal operators while rooting out the lawbreakers.
Meanwhile, our hospitality industry is making progress. The Hawaii Tourism Authority is educating Hawaii-bound passengers about respect for our people and places through in-flight videos. Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau will soon hire a destination manager to oversee community enrichment programs and visitor education while promoting the Maui County Pledge, a visitor code of conduct that includes guidance for visiting Hana. Hotels are encouraging guests to take licensed tours to relieve congestion and illegal parking on Hana Highway and prevent trespassing on private property. Maui Police Department continues to enforce violators while we work with state and county agencies to plan short-term and long-range solutions for Hana Highway.
We are also seeing early results of the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan with the recent debut of the Maui Aloha Shuttle between the airport and resorts and the installation of visitor information kiosks on Maui and Lanai (Molokai coming soon).
We appreciate the community’s patience because effective changes take time. Over the years, our community has overcome other challenges, such as natural disasters, recessions and the health and economic crises of COVID-19. We have always succeeded by working together. If we stay united and focused on lasting solutions, we will overcome this challenge too.
* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.