Let’s find our way back home
The U.S. Congress has yet to reach agreement on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. As we await their decision, Hawaii will officially welcome visitors back to the islands on November 1. Might this be our “return to normal?” Should it be?
Before the global pandemic changed everything in March 2020, our economy was thriving, by conventional measures. Unemployment was below 3 percent and Maui had broken its own visitor arrival records for four straight years. When visitor arrivals approached 3 million per year, we also learned that more is not necessarily better.
Back in 1962, Maui’s first resort hotel, the Royal Lahaina, opened in Ka’anapali. Our county population was just below 40,000 when Amfac Inc. launched the plan to supplement our “one-note” plantation economy with tourism. Nobody could have predicted how quickly this budding industry would grow into Maui County’s dominant economic force. Fast forward to 2021. In fewer than 60 years, tourism has spilled out of resort areas and into our neighborhoods, compounding a chronic housing shortage and inflating an already high cost of living.
Maui County is more vulnerable after the pandemic than before. Insufficient infrastructure, a lopsided economy and reliance on unreliable supply chains for our food and fuel means we are one natural, or man-made, disaster from crisis. My four Pillars of Recovery Plan includes right-sizing tourism, upgrading to green infrastructure, diversifying our economy and strengthening Maui County’s assets. With the exception of transient vacation rentals, these issues have been with us for a very long time.
It took decades for tourism to overtake our plantation economy to grow into industrial tourism. As the hospitality industry reengineers its comeback, managed, regenerative tourism is the new ideal. I understand the calls for immediate curbs on tourism but I believe that evolution, not revolution, is the more sensible path. The simplest way to rebuild our economy is to sustain our hospitality industry while we nurture other industries.
Our global environment is in peril and Maui County is now confronting climate change and sea level rise. Anticipated federal infrastructure funds can help to build and improve roads and bridges and help to relocate shore-side highways inland to prevent inundation. We can also use federal moneys to improve our water and wastewater reclamation systems as well as environmental restoration and broadband upgrades throughout the county. These investments will generate work for the construction trades and offer new career opportunities for island youth. This needed infrastructure will also expedite development of residential housing — specifically affordable rentals and attainable homes for working families.
Technology will lead our economic diversification program by maximizing the potential of our Research and Technology Park in Kihei. Everyone wins when our best and brightest can stay home, or come home, for lucrative STEM careers. Aerospace, astronomy, renewable energy, ocean sciences and ecosystem restoration are other tech-related possibilities. Investing in health care that integrates best practices of East and West can bolster conventional medicine with preventative wellness. These changes will require curriculum changes in our schools and universities as today’s youth prepare for a brighter future.
Finally, my administration will continue to strengthen Maui County’s assets by acquiring land for new housing that local residents can afford. We also plan to establish more parks, natural and cultural preserves for future generations. All of these things are possible when we work together.
The people of Maui County are just now emerging from the worst public health and economic crisis in modern history. Let’s not return to business as usual by chasing more economic growth at any cost. Instead, let’s find our way back home. Let’s build a suitable, diversified economy that is compatible with our land and our people.
* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.