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Traffic tells a tourist tale

Ask a local resident how long a Maui drive is and you’ll likely get your answer in minutes, not miles.

The question requires them to consider not just distance, but also time of day and corresponding traffic. Will this trip be late on a Friday afternoon after 10 Mainland flights have arrived? Is it a pleasure drive with many stops or a fast run? How about before, during or after a global pandemic?

We may have no idea what the route numbers of our highways are, but once the parameters are set, we can tell you within a handful of minutes how long it will take to drive from point A to point B. Residents also find traffic a handy way to gauge the island’s current hotel occupancy rate. Again, we may not know the exact numbers, but if it takes more than an hour to travel the distance between Lahaina and Maalaea, we know the hotels, condos and vacation rentals are full.

Vast stretches of open highway a year ago said our hospitality industry businesses were shuttered and their workers sheltering at home. For those of us whose jobs required them to drive the roads, it seemed surreal to have Hana Highway to ourselves, to be the only vehicle cruising Front Street.

It felt like an apocalyptic science fiction movie, or to have been transported back 70 years to a simpler time. That early in the pandemic, with no vaccine in sight and death tolls climbing in places like New York and Italy, it was impossible not to wonder how long things would stay so quiet.

Not long at all. Since pre-testing allowed Mainland travelers to skip quarantine in mid-October, visitor arrivals have picked up, going from 18,868 arrivals to the state in September to 76,613 in October and 183,779 in November.

Christmas saw an uptick in cars on the road, bodies on the beaches and lines at restaurants. Everything seemed to intensify this past week. All the anecdotal evidence that usually says the island is busy is there.

Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz confirmed it Thursday by reporting that arrival numbers climbed to 65 percent of pre-pandemic totals this week. He also confirmed that rental car companies are challenged to meet the demand after shipping off portions of their idled fleets.

“Our numbers are up there now for spring break,” Moniz said. “We’ll see how we do in the next two or three weeks.”

He said the spike could also be attributed to cheap fares, Kauai’s more stringent COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that people feel Hawaii is a safe place to visit.

For Maui business owners who have struggled to stay afloat, the news must be music to their ears. Those who preach against overtourism are no doubt whistling a different tune.

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