Stepping off the treadmill

The motorist dragged an electric razor across his face as he sat waiting for a Kihei traffic light to change. The way he continued mowing his chin as he motored through the intersection conjured memories of a not-so-distant past when busy island residents had to do two things at once just to keep pace.

Surely you remember those heady days before the coronavirus pandemic slipped Hawaii’s service industry into neutral. How long will it be before island folks are back to rushing between jobs and Maui’s hotels and condos are once again full of guests? An annual forecast by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization says not anytime soon.

The public summary of UHERO’s Annual Hawaii Forecast With Global Outlook released this month carried the headline: “Mainland COVID-19 surge means a bleak winter, but vaccines promise 2021 growth.” It predicts things could pick up in the second half of 2021, with Maui welcoming less than half as many visitors as it did in 2019.

UHERO’s forecast predicts unemployment on Maui, which was 2.6 percent in 2019, to be 16.7 in 2021 and 6.7 in 2022. The report expects about 1.3 million visitors to fly to the Valley Isle in 2021, and 2.6 million in 2022. The island welcomed 3.1 million visitors in 2019.

Maui Hotel & Lodging Executive Director Rod Antone says island occupancy is currently in the “16-to-17 percent” range and nobody knows when things will return to a semblance of normal.

“There’s no crystal ball,” Antone said. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow let alone what’s down the road. I just know that everybody talks about the month of June a lot.”

The pandemic has shown us what Maui looks like without 3 million visitors a year to house, feed and entertain. We all knew there were trade-offs with tourism. In exchange for jobs, thriving businesses and tax revenues, we shared our roadways, facilities and public spaces. To afford to live in paradise, people worked their butts off.

Seeing Paia and Lahaina turned to ghost towns virtually overnight was a sobering revelation. Each boarded-up storefront represented lost jobs, lost revenues, lost taxes and quite possibly the loss of the business itself. Compared to those individual stores, bars, restaurants and activities, the shuttering of entire resort areas caused losses of jobs and revenues on an exponential scale.

Even in a bleak winter, this is still the season with a tradition of counting blessings. Amid the pain and sacrifice, there have been things to be thankful for this year, like the generosity and ingenuity of our community. With quiet neighborhoods, eerily empty beaches and open highways, the pandemic was sort of a time machine to show us Maui back in the day.

It also forced many overworked souls to step off the treadmill and catch their breath. Before we know it, we will be back to multitasking, putting on makeup and shaving on our way to work.


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